Delta Air Lines cranks up cargo-only flights from Asia to U.S.

A big white Delta plane lifts off from runway.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) said it will increase its passenger freighter flights from Seoul, South Korea, to Atlanta and Los Angeles to daily service beginning May 13 in response to continued growth in demand to transport medical supplies and other products from Asia to the U.S.

In March, passenger airlines began repurposing some of their aircraft for dedicated cargo operations after travel demand fell off a cliff due to coronavirus travel restrictions. Consequently, shippers were left with a  shortage of available capacity because of the subsequent groundings. Delta was one of the first airlines to establish scheduled cargo routes, in addition to offering charter flights. 

Delta last month began so-called “ghost flights” – no passengers aboard – from Seoul’s Incheon airport to Atlanta four times weekly and three times per week to Los Angeles. Delta also operates daily cargo flights  between Seoul and Detroit.

Most of the cargo being delivered originates in China. Delta originally flew direct from Shanghai to Detroit, but began shuttling planes through Seoul after Chinese authorities began requiring intrusive testing and quarantines for pilots that disembarked. Rather than conduct crew changes in China, airlines are using Seoul and Tokyo as their hubs.

Delta said it will add another daily flight between Shanghai and Incheon, bringing the total to three. 

The Atlanta and Los Angeles services are operated using Boeing 777-200 Extended Range aircraft, with the Detroit service using an Airbus A350-900. Both aircraft can carry up to 42 tons of cargo in the lower hold. Once the cargo arrives in the U.S., it is transferred to domestic passenger flights to be shipped to destinations around the country. 

As previously reported, massive cargo bottlenecks have created a chaotic situation at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Delta told FreightWaves that it is working to minimize any impact and did not indicate whether it is experiencing any delays.

Delta says it is operating 124 cargo-only flights per week.

U.S. airlines are beginning to follow the lead of international carriers and putting cargo in passenger cabins to maximize efficiency. Delta and United Airlines are now putting light boxes in overhead bins, space under seats and storage closets, as permitted by federal authorities. Domestic airlines have also applied for permission to load boxes in the seats.