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Left without flyers, airlines are using passenger jets for cargo

March 25, 2020
5 min read
American Airlines 777-300ER cargo
Left without flyers, airlines are using passenger jets for cargo
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Hundreds of passenger jets are parked around the world because they aren't flying people anymore during the COVID-19 pandemic. But airlines are still paying leases on them, so they have a lot of capital-intensive assets on their hands sitting idle and not earning money. Even if they own the planes outright, leaving them on the ground to collect parking fees is the last thing airlines want to do.

Enter an unlikely — and partial — savior that keeps some airplanes flying and making money: air cargo. Airlines are using some jets that no longer carry passengers to transport freight in their belly holds. All U.S. majors are doing so, and many international airlines are using the same strategy.

American Airlines, for example, has used one of its flagship jets, a Boeing 777-300ER, to carry freight across the Atlantic recently, without any passengers.

American said in a statement that it is "utilizing its currently grounded passenger aircraft to move cargo between the United States and Europe" and that the first cargo-only flight departed Dallas-Fort Worth last Friday for Frankfurt Airport. The 777 would operate two round-trips on the route over four days, "carrying only cargo and necessary flight personnel."

Photo courtesy of American Airlines
The 777 being loaded in Dallas (Photo courtesy of American Airlines)

With its 304 passenger seats empty but its cargo holds full, the 777 flew out of DFW as flight AA9440 on March 20 and returned on Sunday as AA9441. Its recent flight history, tracked by Flightradar24, is an encapsulation of the woes of the airline industry during the pandemic. The ship registered N729AN flew in regular passenger service until March 17, with normal flight numbers, like AA79 from London Heathrow to Dallas. That was its last flight for three days, an inordinate amount of time for a passenger jet that usually spends only as long on earth as it needs to get turned around between flights.

Then American found something for it to do, and sent it on that cargo mission to Frankfurt as AA9440. It carried, the airline said, medical supplies, mail for U.S. military personnel, telecommunications equipment and electronics.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

Out of 20 Boeing 777-300ERs, the biggest planes it has, American is flying only eight as of now, according to fleet-tracking site Planespotters.

United Airlines said in a statement it's flying 40 cargo charters per week, using Boeing 777s and 787s "to and from U.S. hubs and key international business locations." The first departed on March 19 from Chicago O'Hare, also headed to Frankfurt, the airline said, with 29,000 pounds of goods. Delta Air Lines told specialized logistics news site The Loadstar that it's flying passenger jets as cargo carriers, too.

Qantas, Korean Air, Emirates and Swiss are also using some of their passenger planes to carry freight, The Loadstar reported, and so is Turkish Airlines, according to Turkish news site Daily Sabah. Some airlines including Austrian, China Eastern and Lufthansa are also using the passenger cabin to carry cargo, which is perfectly safe, according to experts.

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Lufthansa for example used an Airbus A330 without passengers aboard as a cargo carrier to Shanghai. On the way back, the airline said in a tweet, it was used to bring back medical supplies, including in the passenger cabin.

Airlines are also still flying dedicated cargo-only aircraft, a key component of global supply chains. Those planes — and their contents, unaffected by quarantines and travel bans — will increasingly be the dominant presence at many international airports as more airlines wind down passenger flying. Major passenger carriers that have their own cargo-only jets include Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, Cathay Pacific, Air China, Korean Air and the three Gulf carriers — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar.

A Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747-8 taking off from JFK airport (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
A Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747-8 taking off from JFK airport (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

With the exceptional cargo capacity of today's large passenger jets, some major airlines no longer have the need for dedicated cargo fleets. No scheduled passenger airlines in the U.S. except Alaska Airlines have dedicated freighters. They can use instead the vast belly holds of their long-haul jets; the biggest jet flying for the legacy U.S. airlines, the 777-300ER, has some serious chops as a cargo carrier. In addition to a full load of passengers, it can carry as much as 100,000 pounds in its holds, which are bigger than even a passenger 747's. American used to fly 747 freighters, until 1984. That year was the last time the airline ran a scheduled cargo-only flight — until last weekend.

Featured image by Photo courtesy of American Airlines