FAA issues guidance for cargo in passenger cabin

Boxes being shipped in passenger seats.

The Federal Aviation Administration is giving airlines the greenlight to carry cargo in the passenger cabin to maximize efficiency and relaxing takeoff and landing quotas at congested airports.

The agency on Thursday issued guidelines for commercial carriers to follow if they transport cargo in stowage bins, passenger seats or on the floor, with the seats removed. The safety alert essentially tells carriers they can carry shipments up top as long as they adhere to all regulatory requirements for the safe carriage of cargo.

Passenger cabins are not designed for all-cargo configurations, but the rules allow goods to be carried there if all normal requirements for the safe carriage of cargo are followed.

The safety alert instructs operators how to assess the risk for carrying goods in the passenger space, including weight and balance, fire detection and suppression and hazardous materials considerations. Carriers have to verify the contents to make sure no dangerous goods are carried in the upper deck.

The FAA recommends that one or more crew members travel in the cabin with the cargo to respond to any potential fire, since fire suppression systems are not present as they are in the cargo hold of modern widebody aircraft. Passenger cabins only have fire extinguishers.

FreightWaves reported earlier this week that American Airlines and Delta Air Lines asked the FAA for permission to carry cargo on the main deck without passengers on board. The use of cargo-only passenger charters has increased in popularity since early March as a way to alleviate the shortage of air transport since airlines grounded most of their fleets. Several international carriers, such as Swiss International Airlines, have already begun to utilize the passenger seats for lightweight goods. And Air Canada and Lufthansa are removing the seats from some aircraft to maximize cabin space for boxes of medical supplies and other products.

Additionally, the FAA said it is extending through Oct. 24 temporary waivers on minimum slot-use requirements at a handful of major airports to help airlines forced to cancel flights due to the coronavirus outbreak. The agency originally relaxed the rules at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Laguardia Airport in New York, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport through May 31.

Under normal circumstances, airlines can lose their takeoff and landing slots at congested airports if they don’t use them at least 80% of the time.

Additionally, at four international U.S. airports where the agency has approval authority — Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport — the FAA will give credit to airlines for flights that were canceled due to the coronavirus through Oct. 24, as though those flights had been operated, when the FAA conducts future schedule development.

The European Union similarly  granted relief from minimum slot-use requirements through the summer 2020 scheduling season.

The airline industry appealed for airport governing bodies to relax the slot rules for the remainder of the flying season because carriers had to dismantle so much of their passenger networks when the coronavirus led to local lockdowns and a massive drop in travel demand.

In comments filed with the FAA, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) noted that the minimum usage rule is “well suited to normal operations, but its implementation under such exceptional circumstances is unnecessary and only forces flying that is neither economically or environmentally responsible or sustainable.”

The certainty about future slot availability gives airlines confidence to cut more flights when necessary to reduce costs.

IATA estimates that airline revenues will drop by $314 billion this year and that the industry’s recovery is expected to take until well beyond the fall.

The Cargo Airline Association told the FAA that it should reallocate to cargo airlines the slots not used for passenger operations during this period as cargo activity booms to keep up with demand for humanitarian aid and other shipments.

Airports only supported a slot waiver through June 30, with the possibility for further adjustments as circumstances dictate.

“Some air carriers may be in a diminished financial condition when the recovery begins and therefore may be further incentivized to add capacity more slowly than demand warrants in order to bolster their market pricing power and enhanced yields,”  the Airports Council International-North America said in its filing.