Alaska Airlines poised to use seats for cargo-only flights

People putting boxes in passenger seats

Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) is aiming to become the first domestic carrier to fly passenger aircraft for cargo customers with shipments in seats. It also is benefiting from jet fuel donated by BP America on certain trips carrying supplies for areas impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

The Seattle-based carrier said Tuesday it is reengineering processes to repurpose passenger jets as quasi-freighter aircraft and hopes to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to place cargo in passenger seats so it can begin special cargo flights in May.

In an effort to be first out of the gate, Alaska Airlines said the cargo division has been testing how best to load cargo in the cabin.

Other U.S. passenger airlines have already put passenger jets to full cargo use but have only just started taking advantage of the passenger cabin to store cargo. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines last week began putting mail and other light packages in overhead compartments and other approved storage areas to expand usable capacity of their planes, but the FAA is still considering an industry request that cargo also be allowed in the seats.

Many international airlines have already been utilizing seat storage for several weeks.

Passenger aircraft are in great demand as cargo haulers because the huge reduction of passenger flights in the era of coronavirus quarantines eliminated space shippers rely on to transport goods. The demand is heightened by the urgent need to move medical supplies, essential goods and e-commerce orders to help communities cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alaska Airlines has been using its three Boeing 737-700 freighters and the bellyholds of passenger flights that are still scheduled to help shippers and freight forwarders with goods movement, but it now plans to add six 737-900 passenger planes for dedicated cargo operations. Rick Bendix, marketing and business development manager for cargo, told FreightWaves the planes will be offered on a charter basis and that talks are underway with customers about routes that are in the highest demand.

Utilizing bins, closets, seats and under-seat areas will enable planes to carry 13,500 more pounds of cargo than a flight with cargo only in the lower hold, Alaska Cargo said. Each flight will carry up to 30,000 pounds. Flight attendants will travel in the cabin to monitor for fire and other potential safety issues.

Putting cargo in the passenger cabin doesn’t make sense for every flight. Several factors go into the decision, including the extra time to individually load the small packages and how that impacts turn time, the need for additional crew, and size and weight limits due to door width and cabin configuration, American Airlines spokeswoman Laura Bassel explained. Federal and international regulations also forbid the carriage of batteries and dangerous goods in the cabin.

“We’re still evaluating the routes where it may be a good opportunity,” Bassel said.

Alaska, the only domestic passenger airline to operate a freighter fleet, does not plan to remove passenger seats from planes at this time, Bendix said.

BP fuels relief flights

Meanwhile, BP (NYSE: BP) is donating 3 million gallons of jet fuel to Alaska Airlines and FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) to support delivery of personal protective equipment and other goods to areas hard hit by COVID-19.

BP Alaska and Air BP are providing the jet fuel free of charge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to help Alaska Air restore air service to several remote Alaska communities recently cut off after a local carrier, Ravn Air Group, ran out of cash and filed for bankruptcy early this month. Alaska Air will deliver food, medical supplies, mail and emergency passenger service.

With BP’s contribution, Alaska Airlines will donate 1 million miles to the American Cancer Society of Alaska’s Flight Partner program, which ensures that cancer patients have access to transportation when they’re required to receive treatment far from home.

BP said the donation to FedEx Express will be used for international air transportation to and from the U.S. under Project Airbridge, in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency contracts with all-cargo carriers to transport critical medical supplies to COVID-19 hot spots.

BP refineries will deliver the fuel, which will fuel 45 charter flights for the government, to Chicago O’Hare and Sea-Tac airports.

Carbon emissions from the fuel donated by BP will be offset through a BP program that uses carbon credits generated by projects that reduce emissions.

“This generation donation of fuel and carbon offsets from BP for these charter flights will reduce the cost for government agencies and support our commitment to sustainability,” FedEx Express CEO Don Colleran said in a statement.

Oil companies are dealing with a huge supply glut with global economic activity at lower levels during the pandemic.