American Airlines launches freighter service using passenger planes

Plane being loaded with cargo

The first American Airlines passenger plane to only fly cargo will depart Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Friday for Frankfurt Airport in Germany, as the airline looks to put idle assets to work moving trade instead of travelers during the coronavirus crisis.

The airline said it will operate two round trips between DFW and Frankfurt over the course of four days using a Boeing 777-300 wide-body plane. It is the first scheduled flight dedicated to cargo since 1984 when American retired the last of its Boeing 747 freighters.

American said the flights are expected to be booked to capacity and haul medical supplies, mail for active U.S. military, telecommunications equipment and electronics that will support people working from home, and e-commerce packages.

The 777-300 has 14 cargo positions for large pallets and can carry more than 100,000 pounds. 

FreighWaves was first to report that American was offering logistics companies the chance to charter passenger planes and fill them with cargo, a situation made possible by the deterioration in the passenger market, ultra-low jet-fuel prices and soaring prices for airfreight as shippers scramble to find transport for their goods without the availability of normal passenger networks. Freighter operators are picking up some of the slack, but there are long backlogs to book space, according to cargo professionals.

“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,” Rick Elieson, president of cargo, said in a statement.

Domestically, American continues to carry cargo on all of its planes, mostly smaller narrow-body aircraft. This week the airline transported its first shipment of COVID-19 test kits from Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina to Chicago O’Hare Airport.

Meanwhile, American has secured a $1 billion loan to support operations in the face of a massive revenue shortfall resulting from travel restrictions and fear associated with the coronavirus pandemic, CEO Robert Isom said in a message to employees.

The financing gives the company about $8.4 billion in liquid assets to cover short-term needs.

It’s the latest in a series of steps taken by the world’s largest airline — measured by passengers and distance flown — to reduce costs and preserve cash. On Sunday, American said it was reducing international capacity by 75% through May 6 and suspending nearly all long-haul flights, with domestic service to be cut 30% in April.

Isom reiterated that the airline will park 135 wide-body jets, adding that 320 smaller planes will also be sidelined and that more network adjustments are anticipated.

“This is a crisis unlike any we’ve faced in the past. Together, we will continue to be aggressive on all fronts so that we ensure American’s future is intact,” Isom said.

American is also shrinking its staff through voluntary leave and is offering early retirement to employees with 15 years at the company, with health care available at the active employee rate, the CEO said. In addition to hiring and pay freezes announced last week, the airline is discontinuing classes for newly hired flight attendants.

Other airlines, including United and Delta, have taken similar steps to save money. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department urged Americans not to travel abroad and to return home if overseas.

Earlier, Canadian carrier Swoop said it is suspending all international and transborder flights through May 31, except for repatriation flights to bring customers home from overseas.

LATAM Airlines, the biggest carrier in South America, earlier this week reduced its flight schedule by 70%, including 90% of its international operations. Reuters is reporting the airline plans to cut pay in half for its 43,000 employees.