With many airlines around the world grounding large swathes of their fleets and cancelling international flights, passenger jets are sat idle at airports across the world.
With Airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific canceling more than 90% of their scheduled flights, passengers are seldom flying.
However, since the onset of COVID-19 and global lockdowns, one of the greatest testaments to development and globalization in 2020 is how supply chains have continued to remain largely operational.
Except for brief periods of some supermarket shelves being empty, supplies have been restocked and the movement of goods, including food supplies has largely been uninterrupted.
Therefore, with nearly half the world’s population under lockdown, consumers are continuing to order goods online, and that means that the global flow must continue.
Passenger airlines generate 10-15% of their revenue through cargo. However, with very few passengers or baggage on aircraft, there is now a considerable amount of capacity for cargo.
Virgin Atlantic this week operates their first cargo-only flight and other airlines have followed suit. Airlines are not only utilising their full cargo-hold capacity but using passenger cabins to transport cargo.
American Airlines operated their first cargo-only flight this week as well since 1984 and other carriers including British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates and United have followed suit in converting some passenger capacity to cargo-only flights.
Despite passengers being restricted from entering many countries around the world, cargo is not, and remains a necessary chain to ensure the continual flow of goods.
Although some commercial passenger airlines do have cargo only fleets they are often a small fraction of the size of their currently under-utilised passenger fleets.
For example, Qatar Airways operates just 28 cargo-only aircraft out of a total fleet of 243 aircraft.
British Airways operates just 3 Boeing 747-8F cargo aircraft compared to 282 passenger jets. In the U.S. passenger airlines operate almost no cargo-only flights, and are now pivoting their capacity. CargoLux, Atlas Air, FedEx and DHL are some of the world’s cargo-only airlines but they are now seeing additional capacity from these passenger airlines. Delta Air Lines and Air Canada quickly followed suit in operating part of its fleet on exclusive cargo flights between North America and Europe.
At this stage, and with so much uncertainty as to when global travel restrictions will end, it remains uncertain as to whether some airlines will fully convert passenger jets to cargo-only aircraft. By removing passenger seats, not only can airlines create more cargo space, but also reduce weight to allow increased cargo capacity.
However, there is a cost associated with converting aircraft, and at this stage, most passenger airlines have seemingly covered up seats with a protective plastic to temporarily utilise as much space as possible.
Turkish Cargo has a fleet of 25 cargo-only aircraft and this week joined other airlines in converting part of its passenger fleet to cargo jets. Turkish Airlines will only continue operating international passenger flights to Hong Kong, Moscow, Addis Ababa, New York and Washington D.C.
This week the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) appealed to the governments to exclude air cargo operations from any COVID-19 travel restrictions and ensure the transportation of medical supplies without disruption.