Airlines are utilizing their passenger aircraft as freighters to help offset the impact of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) that has wiped out a huge chunk of international passenger traffic and to ensure an uninterrupted supply chain at this critical time.


Korean Air started offering its passenger planes for cargo charters as it sought “new opportunities” due to unpredictable changes.


“As the Covid-19 situation becomes increasingly dire, it is important for us to take a new perspective when looking at the market,” Walter Cho, chairman of parent company Hanjin Group, said as he proposed that the airline use its passenger aircraft as freighters to “overcome the current crisis, as this would cut down expenses and support import and export companies.”


As of press time, the virus has sickened some 2.5 million people worldwide, killing more than 167,000 and halting nearly all international passenger air travel. Flight suspensions and reductions have led airlines to park passenger aircraft in increasing numbers.


“If we use the cargo compartment of our parked passenger aircraft, not only can we respond to the changing demand of cargo transport by diversifying our cargo routes, but we can also reduce aircraft parking fees,” Cho added. “We must flexibly respond to market demand.”


Korean initially launched cargo routes to Ho Chi Minh City, Qingdao and Taipei; the first flights used a passenger Airbus A330-300 capable of carrying 20 tonnes of cargo.


American Airlines and Delta Air Airlines announced they will also be running charter freight flights to move goods following significant cuts to passenger networks.


American’s first cargo-only flight — operated using a Boeing 777-300 aircraft — departed from Dallas Fort Worth on March 20. Initial plans were for the airline to run two round trips in four days, carrying only cargo and necessary flight personnel. The initial flights carried some 350,000 pounds of medical supplies, mail for active-duty US military personnel, telecommunications equipment and electronics to support communities impacted by Covid-19.


“American Airlines is utilizing its currently grounded passenger aircraft to move cargo between the United States and Europe, ensuring the world’s goods continue to get where they need to go,” the Texas-based airline said, noting that this flight was its the first scheduled cargo-only flight since 1984 when American retired the last of its Boeing 747 freighters.


The airline announced on April 9 that it would soon be expanding its cargo-only service from DFW to Dublin and Hong Kong, and between New York JFK and London Heathrow, and that it was working towards adding service to Shanghai Pudong, Seoul Incheon and Buenos Aires by the end of the month.


The airline said the flights provide much-needed cargo capacity for many of the airline’s regular cargo customers, allowing them to continue operating in this challenging environment.


“We have a critical role to play in keeping essential goods moving during this unprecedented time, and we are proud to do our part and find ways to continue to serve our customers and our communities,” said Rick Elieson, president of cargo and vice president of international operations.


“Challenging times call for creative solutions, and a team of people across the airline has been working nonstop to arrange cargo-only flight options for our customers,” he said.


Delta Cargo is also launching charter operations to and from 13 major American hubs and international gateways and more than 70 international destinations to provide “safe and reliable transportation of customers goods” around the globe amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.


The air freight division of Delta Air Lines said the cargo charters were launched at the request of companies looking to ease capacity crunch at fully-booked all-cargo airlines moving goods out of China as factories there start to normalize after several weeks of quarantine.


“Offering new supply chain solutions through Delta Cargo to our customers is one opportunity for us to provide the support our customers tell us they need during this unprecedented business environment,” said “Serving our customers and communities where we live, work and serve, is part of Delta's DNA,” said Shawn Cole, vice president, Delta Cargo.


Cathay Pacific will also be repurposing its passenger aircraft for cargo.


“While our freighter network remains intact, we are ramping up our cargo capacity by mounting charter services and operating certain suspended passenger services purely for airfreight to meet cargo customer demand,” said Ronald Lam, Cathay Pacific’s chief customer and commercial officer.


“We need to take difficult but decisive measures as the scale of the challenge facing the global aviation industry is unprecedented,” he added, noting that it is vital that the airline continues to provide important passenger and cargo connections to and from Hong Kong, considered during normal times as the world’s busiest cargo airport.


Australian flag carrier Qantas said its fleet of freighters will continue to be fully utilized and some domestic passenger aircraft will also be used for freight-only flights to replace lost capacity from regularly scheduled services.


Other airlines that have started utilizing wide-body passenger planes for all-cargo operations include Turkish Cargo, United Airlines and Emirates SkyCargo, among others.


Scoot, the low-cost subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, also said it will operate freight charters for Singapore Airlines Cargo.


“Scoot is operating bellyhold freight charters for Singapore Airlines Cargo in March 2020 on the Singapore-Hong Kong, Singapore-Guangzhou and Singapore-Nanjing routes, using Boeing 787-9 aircraft. These freight charter flights will be operated on a turnaround basis without cabin crew or passengers on board,” Scoot told Asia Cargo News.


By Charlee C. Delavin

Asia Cargo News | Hong Kong