The Federal Aviation Administration late Friday gave U.S. airlines permission to remove passenger seats and transport cargo on the floor of the cabin in aircraft being deployed on cargo-only flights.
The exemption to existing regulations governing aircraft operations lasts for one year. The FAA also extended until July 10, 2021, its prior ruling that airlines could fly with cargo strapped into the seats through the end of this year.
The FAA’s response may be too late to benefit passenger airlines because the market for air transport has cooled considerably since March, when cargo customers were first offered the chance to charter empty airplanes to help counter a severe shortage of transportation space. It is unclear how many airlines still consider reengineering airplane interiors a viable business opportunity.
“Rates have popped. I don’t think they’ll do it at this point,” an executive for an air services company that loads and unloads aircraft for airlines said on condition of anonymity.
The decision comes two months after an airline trade group petitioned for an exemption from normal aircraft operating rules and three months after some international carriers began reconfiguring passenger cabins to create more room for boxes of goods.
At the height of the coronavirus medical crisis airlines grounded most of their passenger flights. That eliminated more than half of the global cargo capacity. Shippers were paying up to $1.5 million to lease pure freighter aircraft for one-way trips, with passenger airlines also commanding top dollar for auxiliary freighters and implementing scheduled cargo routes for customers leasing blocks of space. Since then, rates have fallen 50% to 70%, depending on the travel lane. In addition, fuel prices have increased.
In recent weeks, demand for emergency air shipments of personal protective equipment has waned with the buildup of sufficient inventories in many areas and airlines’ reintroduction of many passenger flights. And market watchers have observed that airlines are decreasing the number of passenger freighters in operation.
“We remain focused on cargo in cabin operations, specifically overhead bins and closets. We have not removed seats from the cabin,” United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) spokeswoman Rachael Rivas said in an email.
Delta Air Lines’ officials previously expressed interest in pulling seats from airplanes to increase cargo efficiency. Spokeswoman Debbie Sheehan confirmed Monday that Delta (NYSE: DAL) is “currently evaluating the use and opportunity of removing seats in aircraft for cargo purposes.”
International carriers such as Air Canada, Lufthansa, Swiss International Air Lines and Emirates were able to get emergency exemptions for seat removal much faster from their respective civil aviation authorities. Some airlines began deploying aircraft without seats in April.
The FAA action builds on earlier approval for cargo to be transported on seats, in overhead bins and in storage closets.
Industry officials say utilizing the main deck on these “mini-freighters” can double the cubic space available for shipments and is ideal for boxes of lightweight medical supplies.
U.S. airlines had requested FAA approval for two years to temporarily modify aircraft for cargo efficiency. They argued that the industry is expected to experience a slow recovery from the devastating loss of business caused by the coronavirus and that extra time is needed to offset the investments required to safely implement the changes.
The FAA said the one-year exemption supports the movement of critical medical, food and other supplies while passenger demand remains depressed.
“The stability of the U.S. transportation infrastructure is particularly critical at this time because of the increased and immediate demand for medical supplies and other essential cargo prompted by the COVID-19 public health emergency,” the ruling said.
The exemption comes with conditions to ensure safety, because passenger cabins aren’t designed for heavy loads and lack fire suppression systems found in cargo compartments. The airlines were seeking to place 200 cubic feet of cargo in passenger compartments, but the FAA limited the volume to 125 cubic feet, citing the need for extra room for on-board personnel to fight any potential fire.
The FAA’s conditions and limitations for operating aircraft without passenger seats include:
- Deactivating in-flight entertainment and passenger oxygen systems
- Using straps, nets, pallets or other restraints to secure cargo to the seat tracks
- Cargo cannot exceed 50 inches in height
- Cargo must be loaded in a way that allows sufficient access in aisles for firefighting
- At least four fire extinguishers available on the main deck
- At least two trained persons on the main deck whose job is to detect and fight a fire, and relay information to the flight crew
Seat removal calculation
“Personal protective equipment is a very good product to hand stack on the upper deck of a passenger airplane. It is a non-dangerous good, it’s lightweight and it’s volumetric,” Neel Jones Shah, head of global airfreight at San Francisco-based logistics company Flexport, told FreightWaves. Airlines will now have to assess whether there’s enough volumetric cargo since shipments of protective gear are shifting to slower ocean transportation, he said.
Nonetheless, airfreight specialists say many airplanes still arrive loaded with hospital supplies to combat COVID-19. Airlines also have to assess whether the recent spike in cases across southern and western states, plus the possibility of a second wave of infections in the fall, could create supply shortages and spur demand again for express air deliveries.
Another consideration is the fact that putting cargo in the passenger cabin creates extensive operational challenges. Twin-aisle planes used in international service and pure freighters can be loaded with full pallets and have specialized loading systems to pull the pallets. Cargo in the cabin has to be manually loaded through narrow cabin doors.
“I will tell you executing on these flights has been quite challenging for the carriers. You need 15 to 16 people to load these airplanes, you need the cargo to be tendered hours in advance of the flight and there are destination-side delays in unloading the planes,” said Jones Shah, a former cargo chief at Delta Air Lines.
Some ground handlers say they use about 10 to 12 workers to load and unload cabins, but whatever the number the job is manpower-intensive and more expensive than working a pure freighter. Airlines have gotten creative at speeding up the process, using bucket bridges to pass along boxes, off-the-shelf conveyor belts that can be quickly folded into an airplane’s aisle, and catering equipment to lift loads to the plane doors.
The extra work involved with unloading planes with cabin cargo is one of the reasons contributing to long delays getting import shipments picked up at Chicago O’Hare and other major U.S. airports.
In the early days of the pandemic Flexport chartered several flights with international airlines that had seats removed, “but I’m not personally jumping at the chance to lease a bunch of these flights,” or cargo-only passenger planes of any stripe, he said.
“We are pretty adequately covered with the right profile of pre-procured space and spot buying opportunities” and will charter a full freighter when necessary for incremental business, Jones Shah explained.