Airlines Modifying Planes to Deal with the Cargo Crunch
Some 150 airlines are now carrying cargo in an effort to offset losses. Passenger traffic may take several years to return to normal, and flying cargo helps airlines to reduce the operational and maintenance costs of parked airplanes.
Why Ship Goods Onboard Aircraft
When the coronavirus pandemic picked up speed, demand for personal protective equipment such as gowns, gloves, and masks soared. Equipment and medical supplies now need to be shipped from waning hotspots to emerging epicenters.
With travel restrictions and lockdowns introduced worldwide, demand for fast goods shipment increased as online sales skyrocketed. As China restarted its economy, large volumes of goods need to be moved along the global supply chain.
Travel and border restrictions left cargo ships stranded in ports around the world, with airlines helping clear the backlog of containers.
How Passenger Airlines Responded
Not only are freight forwarders chartering flights to increase their operating capacity but many airlines chose to transform their airplanes to ship cargo. Some carriers stack goods in the seats and overhead bins of aircraft as to meet increased demand. Others have removed the seats altogether to ship medical equipment from Chinese airports to the United States and Europe.
To enable airlines to transport cargo, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency moved to update its guidelines and lift the limits on shipping goods in passenger cabins. Crew is now allowed to monitor cargo in the cabins of airplanes that have no fire suppression equipment and smoke detectors. The exemptions apply for just 8 months, however, and airlines that modify their passenger planes will need a supplemental certificate.
Some airlines are also opting for shared space for cargo and passengers as demand for medical and personal protective equipment declines, passenger aircraft resume operations, and cargo volume still exceeds capacity.
Hurdles and Challenges
While modifying aircraft has helped generate revenue, there are still hurdles to overcome. Matching capacity with supply is a major challenge, with coordination being ad-hoc most of the time. Both coordinating supply and boosting capacity are labor and time consuming. But there is more to it. Shipping companies face multiple challenges such as quickly changing regulations and border restrictions, operational curfews, and overflying charges and regulations. Even when airplanes have permission to land, crew may be subject to quarantine and testing. This means that aircraft can be grounded for 14 days and crew quarantined or waiting to return. In addition, shippers cannot afford 14-day delays when transporting medical supplies and other essential goods. Airlines responded by asking governments to implement fast-track policies for landing permits and overflight, grant temporary traffic rights, and lift quarantine for crew.
Experts also point to the fact that passenger airlines are likely to face further challenges after the pandemic ends. These include border restrictions, differing regulations, and non-coordinated policies. Government authorities and industry players need to cooperate and come up with a flexible and adaptable approach so that airlines resume operations to everyone’s benefit.