New aircraft recruited for COVID mission; air cargo gets window seat

Workers put boxes in airline seats.

(Updated 1:30 p.m., ET with Boeing Dreamlifter photo)

This May will mark the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation when more than 300,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches in northern France and transported to England by a hastily assembled armada of every conceivable small craft the admiralty could muster.

In today’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, private-sector aircraft of all types are being repurposed, converted and enlisted like never before because the need for humanitarian aid and speed is so high.

The most dramatic trend in the past two months has been the use of passenger aircraft exclusively to move cargo, first as on-demand charters and then on regular, scheduled routes. There is a lot of wasted space when a passenger plane flies without passengers, but the aircraft are desperately needed because passenger networks, which carried about 50% of the world’s air cargo, have virtually shut down across much of the world due to stay-at-home orders and travel bans.

The innovation hasn’t stopped there. Airlines have started to put cargo in the passenger cabin, including on seats, and are beginning to remove seats from aircraft to make way for more cargo. Early reservations that passenger-to-cargo variants might only be economical for airlines on a few limited lanes quickly collapsed because of the urgent need to establish new medical supply chains, and support manufacturers of other goods that need expedited transport to overcome constraints in the system.

On Monday, Swiss International Air Lines said it is considering removing more than 800 economy-class seats from three Boeing 777-300 extended-range aircraft as it gets deluged with requests to move cargo, mostly medicines, supplies and equipment for the Swiss health care system.

Sister company Lufthansa Airlines has removed seats on four twin-aisle planes and two more are slated for conversion, a spokesman said last week.

Swiss and its cargo division have performed more than 80 ad hoc cargo-specific flights since the end of March, transporting more than 1,300 tons of airfreight from Asia to Switzerland. The airline said it plans to operate 100 or more additional cargo flights for public and private entities between now and the end of May. It also will soon introduce a network of regular cargo flights between Zurich and Shanghai (up to three times daily), Chicago and Tokyo (twice weekly) and Bangkok and Singapore (weekly).

Meanwhile, All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced it is the first Japanese airline to carry test kits and other medical supplies as cargo on its passenger seats and in overhead compartments. Using the upper deck allows it to transport about 40% more cargo than when only using the conventional cargo compartment. So far, the arrangement has only been used between Shanghai and Haneda Airport in Tokyo, but the airline said it is considering expanding the tactic to other routes.

ANA has operated 383 charter flights with its fleet of full-size freighters planes since March.

Last week, British Airways began carrying cargo in the cabin for the first time. The airline also said it will increase to 21 the number of passenger-to-cargo flights from China to the U.K., up from 13. Beginning May 14, it will operate 14 flights from Shanghai and seven from Beijing carrying personal protective equipment and ventilators for the National Health Service. Sister company IAG Cargo works with British Airways, Aer Lingus and Iberia to manage the movement of freight. 

Virgin Atlantic last week said it will launch scheduled cargo-only flights from London to Tel Aviv, Israel, beginning May 6. The twice-weekly flights offer up to 35 tons of lower-deck cargo space, with popular items expected to include Israeli pharmaceuticals, electronics and perishable products. Virgin Atlantic began passenger service to Tel Aviv in September and was growing cargo sales beyond expectations, but was forced to cancel the flights when the coronavirus outbreak spread.

Air Canada, which was one of the first to retrofit passenger planes to carry more cargo, has started special cargo flights with a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner four times per week between Toronto and Los Angeles. It has also added cargo-only flights to Amsterdam; Copenhagen, Denmark; Frankfurt, Germany (three extra above existing weekly schedule); Mexico City; and Tel Aviv. 

Last week, U.S. passenger airlines asked aviation authorities for permission to fly cargo in the passenger seats, as first reported by FreightWaves.

American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) on Monday said it is expanding its cargo-only operation between its Dallas-Fort Worth hub and Amsterdam and Dublin. It is also expanding scheduled cargo service to and from New York JFK and London Heathrow, and between Miami and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The airline is operating 46 weekly cargo-only flights among the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Unique uses of aircraft aren’t limited to passenger airlines.

The Boeing Co., (NYSE: BA) has been flying COVID-19 relief missions with personal protective equipment from Hong Kong to the U.S. using its massive super-jumbo jet, which normally transports large sections of aircraft built by suppliers to its assembly plants near Seattle and Charleston, South Carolina.

On Sunday, the converted 747-400 large cargo freighter, dubbed the Dreamlifter, arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, with 1.5 million medical-grade face masks for health care professionals in the state. It’s the largest aircraft to ever land at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

Discommon, a boutique industrial designer and manufacturer of fashion accessories, secured production of the masks from manufacturers in China and contacted Boeing to transport them for Prisma Health, the largest health care system in South Carolina. Boeing said it donated the cost of the flight, which was operated by pilots from Atlas Air. Prisma said it will give 100,000 masks to the Medical University of South Carolina, which is located near Boeing’s Dreamliner plant.

Boeing said it is coordinating with U.S. government officials to provide additional relief missions with the Dreamlifter and its ecoDemonstrator.

Rival Airbus is also using test planes and airlifters built for the military.

Another giant plane, the AN-124, operated by Russia’s Antonov Airlines, has also participated in the Project Airbridge airlift organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The AN-124 is the world’s largest civil aircraft.

On the other end of the spectrum, Air Canada’s regional partner, Jazz, is turning small turboprop planes into freighters by removing the seats.