LATAM lands Brazil’s last COVID-19 emergency air bridge flight

LATAM Airlines cargo airlift

LATAM Airlines Group (NYSE: LTM) said this week it has landed its last flight of a three-month “air bridge” between China and Brazil to transport much needed protective face masks to fight the coronavirus pandemic in the South American country.

The Chilean carrier flew 39 flights from China transporting 240 million N95 surgical masks under contract with Brazil’s Ministry of Infrastructure. The project marked the first time LATAM Group aircraft have operated in China.

The airline started the air bridge in partnership with Brazil’s Ministry of Infrastructure with the first Boeing 777 passenger-to-cargo-only flight on May 6. According to LATAM, these flights were its first ever to China. 

The LATAM air bridge consisted of five Boeing 777s used for 39 flights. 

LATAM used five Boeing 777-300 Extended Range passenger planes for the mission, taking advantage of the seats, floor space between seats and overhead bins to carry additional boxes and increase carrying capacity. 

The flights originated in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen, arriving at  São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport for delivery to hospitals across the country.

The airplanes collectively transported 1,200 tons or 146,661 boxes of N95 surgical masks from Chinese suppliers in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen to São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport, from which Brazil’s Ministry of Health distributed them to hospitals across the country.

“We implemented all our logistics expertise to combat this pandemic and reinvent our operations in a very short time,” said Diogo Elias, LATAM Cargo’s Brazil director, in a statement.

LATAM assigned more than 300 personnel to the air bridge operation.

The final air bridge flight landed at São Paulo-Guarulhos on Sunday, July 19.

The end of Brazil’s air bridge follows similar airline-government partnerships to transport COVID-19-fighting medical supplies from China. 

The French government ended its air bridge with Russian airline Volga-Dnepr earlier this month, while the U.S. government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency finalized a similar operation with various American airlines in June.

While the Brazil air bridge is a bright spot for LATAM, the Santiago, Chile-based airline has been financially battered by widespread government travel restrictions. In May, LATAM filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. to downsize the airline and restructure its debt.  

Qatar Airways and LATAM chairman Ignacio Cueto, two of the company’s largest shareholders, will provide $900 million in debtor-in-possession financing. FreightWaves reported the capital injection will help LATAM, which has $1.3 billion in liquid reserves, pay service vendors, and put the two shareholders at the head of the line to claim assets if the airline must liquidate.

In related news, Emirates SkyCargo said it has operated more than 10,000 cargo flights since the start of the COVID pandemic, using a mix of freighters and passenger aircraft as freighters. The airline has modified 10 777-300ER aircraft by removing Economy Class seats to allow for floor cargo in the cabin. 

Emirates said it operated 500 flights in May and June with cabin cargo, including in the seats and carry-on compartments.

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Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Chris Gillis.