Skip to content

How passenger planes are converted into cargo jets filled with life-saving medical supplies

May 1 2020
6 min read
How passenger planes are converted into cargo jets filled with life-saving medical supplies
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we've seen all the major U.S. airlines slash their schedules and reduce frequencies.

With near-zero demand for air travel, airlines are stuck in a bind — what do they do with all their planes that have nowhere to go?

Most of the jets end up getting parked in the desert in the southwestern United States. That's because the low humidity of the high desert helps prevent corrosion. Plus, there’s much more space in the southwest, so there’s plenty of room for large planes at facilities such as Pinal Airpark and Roswell airport.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

For more travel tips and news, sign up for our daily newsletter

Though you may think that airlines should use this time to retrofit their grounded fleets with lie-flat seats and other passenger improvements, truth is that they're looking to save every dollar they can. That's why it's unlikely we're going to see any acceleration in cabin retrofit programs.

United Polaris retrofit project on the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But planes are a massive fixed cost, and they make no money stored in the desert. So the latest trend we've seen is airlines converting some of their passenger jets to (temporary) cargo planes to carry, among other things, masks and other desperately needed medical supplies across the world.

But how exactly do they do that?

First, some background: though passenger jets primarily carry people, they also have a good amount of cargo space below the main deck. In fact, I've had my fair share of experiences walking around the cargo hold of the Boeing 787 (take a look at my Instagram for those shots).

As such, passenger airlines could continue flying their jets without passengers by just filling the cargo hold. To maximize how much they can carry, however, we've seen airlines make temporary modifications to their passengers cabins.

Related: Behind the scenes at Delta's cargo hub

After all, if they're not flying any passengers, what's the point in leaving the cabin empty?

The simplest way to put supplies in a passenger jet

There are two different models that we've seen airlines adapt for putting cargo in the main deck.

The fastest way is to just cover the seats and onboard electronics with protective film, fasten the cargo directly into the seats, wrap it with some netting and call it a day.

As you can imagine, that is not necessarily the best way to maximize space since you're limiting how much cargo you can carry to whatever fits into the seats. Plus, you have to be very careful not to damage the expensive seats.

Photo courtesy of Lufthansa

This is exactly what Lufthansa did with four of its Airbus A350s. The planes operate daily cargo flights from Beijing and Shanghai stocked with masks urgently needed across Germany.

The much improved method to maximize cargo space in a passenger jet

Hence, the reason for the second, more time-intensive and costly option — removing the seats from the plane. Air Canada recently took three of its flagship Boeing 777-300ERs and converted them to cargo jets using this method.

They removed the seats, protected the TVs and other cabin electronics and got the plane ready to carry important cargo like masks and ventilators.

Photo courtesy Air Canada

When it comes time to load the plane, the airline just piles boxes on top of each other, and fastens them together using a netting that's tied to the floor.

This process was developed, produced and implemented within six days. These modifications were then certified and approved by Transport Canada, the government body regulating transportation.

Photo courtesy Air Canada

Airbus has come up with an improvement to the method that Air Canada used. It's now offering customers operating A330s and A350s a solution that makes it easier to load cargo and maximize the volume they can fill. Specifically, the Airbus solution allows airlines to put pallets on the floor of the passenger cabin and connect them to the seat tracks.

Photo courtesy of Airbus
Photo courtesy of Airbus

According to Airbus, a full conversion once seats are out takes two people two hours, which is incredibly quick and potentially worthwhile to maximize the cargo space. Additionally, once this process is approved by the aviation safety regulatory boards, airlines can complete the modification without individual approval from local safety boards for every jet that gets this treatment.

Related: Left without flyers, airlines are using passenger jets for cargo

How does the cargo get into the plane?

Regardless of which conversion process airlines choose, you may be wondering — how do you get the cargo into the passenger deck? After all, there's no large freight door like there is on dedicated cargo jets.

Related: The retired American Airlines 767s are being turned into cargo planes

Well, airlines can only carry cargo that fits through the passenger doors. That means carriers are putting cardboard boxes one by one into the passenger compartments.

Photo courtesy Lufthansa

Take a look at these two pictures shared by Lufthansa. As you can see, the carrier is loading freight via the passenger doors. A forklift brings the cargo container up to the plane, where employees then need to unpack the container and put the boxes into the cabin.

Photo courtesy of Lufthansa

Bottom line

We're living in unprecedented times. Just two months ago I was reviewing the Air Canada business class product on the Boeing 777-300ER. Now, the carrier, along with many others, is using thise exact jets to carry medical supplies around the world.

In fact, the process of converting the passenger planes to cargo ones isn't nearly as advanced as you might think. Even if the airlines deploy the most sophisticated conversion by removing seats from the main deck, it doesn't actually take too long.

And that's good news, because I can't wait for the time when the airlines are hurrying to re-convert their jets back into passenger service.

Featured photo by Photo courtesy Air Canada

TPG featured card

Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 6X points
6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points75,000 points
Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

Annual Fee

$125

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees