More airlines gut passenger interiors for cargo

A passenger plane with some seat rows removed for cargo.

LATAM Airlines and Austrian Airlines are the latest passenger carriers to make room for cargo by removing seats in the cabin as shippers frantically seek more airlift to move their goods.

Airlines opting to reconfigure passenger aircraft as full freighters in the seven weeks since cargo-only flights became a phenomenon have cleared all the seats, but Chile-based LATAM is taking the unusual step of dismantling only some rows to improve capacity. Austrian, too, is leaving some seats in place.

LATAM on Monday said it has modified a Boeing 777-300 extended-range aircraft to temporarily fly from Asia to Latin America with medical supplies needed for the coronavirus outbreak. The company’s maintenance center in Sao Paulo completed the interior changes in three days, adding 20% more room by volume compared to planes only using the lower cargo hold and seat areas. As previously reported, LATAM is putting cargo on top of seats in some cases. Remaining seat rows help brace cargo.

Airlines are throwing idle assets into full-time cargo operations after dismantling passenger networks when the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine measures destroyed travel demand. Even though the global economy is shrinking and companies don’t need to move as many goods, the loss of cargo space in passenger planes is even greater, creating transport shortages for businesses and relief efforts.

Cargo storage on so-called “ghost” flights – no passengers on board – has evolved from cargo riding only in the hold, to then being put in approved storage areas and on top of seats, to being strapped to the floor after stripping out all the seats. LATAM is now trying a hybrid option.

Using nontraditional storage areas in the passenger cabin for cargo requires approval from civil aviation authorities. 

Meanwhile, Austrian Airlines, which suspended all passenger flights March 18, last week converted the first of two Boeing 777s, in which 270 of the 306 passenger seats from all travel classes were removed. The second conversion is scheduled to be completed Thursday.

Clearing out the cabin, which took 500 man-hours per aircraft, increases the cargo capacity of the widebody jets by about 35%, Austrian Airlines said.

The airline, part of the Deutsche Lufthansa Group, has been using a large number of long-haul aircraft in cargo-only mode to move goods, primarily medical supplies, from China and Malaysia to Austria. It also is maximizing efficiency by putting boxes on top of aircraft seats. So far, the airline, with help from Lufthansa Cargo and its logistics arm, has completed more than 50 cargo flights, with 45 more flights planned.

“As soon as the demand for travel picks up again, we can convert the aircraft back into passenger planes at any time,” Austrian Chief Operating Officer Jens Ritter said in a news release.

On Friday, Austrian expanded its cargo offering to include flights to Beijing and Shenzhen, China, in addition to daily flights to Shanghai and regular flights to Xiamen and Penang, Malaysia..

Austrian shrinks fleet

Austrian Airlines last week extended its passenger suspension through the end of May and outlined how it plans to reopen service as a smaller version of itself.

The company said it plans to operate in the coming years with 20% less capacity. The fleet restructuring involves continuing the phaseout of 18 Dash turboprops, which began last year, and retiring all seven Airbus A319 aircraft and three of its six Boeing 767s by 2022. The 767s average 28 years in age.

Austrian’s restart plan calls for a fleet of about 60 aircraft in 2022, nine of which will be long-haul aircraft, down from 80. The airline also is following through on the addition of several Airbus A320s. Although more than 20% of aircraft are being decommissioned, the total impact on passenger capacity is about 20% because mostly smaller planes are being eliminated and partially replaced with A320 capacity.

Executives projected that the airline won’t return to pre-crisis business levels until 2023 at the earliest and will be at no more than 75% of capacity by the end of 2021.