North American passenger airlines expand cargo flights in May

A big white jet gets loaded with pallets of cargo.

Having gotten a taste of flying on-demand and scheduled cargo-only flights, U.S. and Canadian passenger airlines are doubling down on their new business model in May. 

Cargo is one of the few sources of revenue for airlines these days and after idling most of their fleets because of coronavirus travel restrictions and safety fears, shippers are itching to find available air transport to move their goods.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) on Wednesday is turning its frequent Shanghai-to-Los Angeles and Shanghai-to-Atlanta, scheduled flights, via Seoul, South Korea, into daily operations using large twin-aisle jetliners.

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) plans to operate more than 1,100 dedicated cargo flights in May, up from 770 in April, cargo chief Jan Krems said in a note to customers. The airline now offers service between its six U.S. hubs and 18 airports worldwide — five more than a month ago — from major cities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, to San Juan, Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. 

“As countries around the globe begin to recover from the pandemic, and the demand for air cargo rises in response, we will work quickly to respond to your requests to add new cities to our network and/or increase frequencies on existing routes. Of course, we will continue to maximize the use of the cargo capacity on United’s passenger flights as well,” Krems said. 

The Chicago-based airline also has begun full-scale use of overhead bins and closets to transport cargo and mail, spokeswoman Rachael Rivas confirmed. United previously tested the concept on a limited scale after the Federal Aviation Administration gave domestic carriers the green light to use approved cabin-stowage areas for cargo. The airlines are also seeking permission to use the seats for storage

Initially, cargo in-cabin will be loaded on Boeing 777 and 787 widebodies, Krems said. 

Meanwhile, American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) said Tuesday it has expanded its cargo schedule in May to provide 140 weekly flights to 15 cities in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Caribbean. That compares with 80 flights last week. New destinations include daily flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Hong Kong, and weekly flights between  DFW and Beijing. Chicago gets weekly flights to London Heathrow and Paris; and Philadelphia adds weekly flights to Rome, San Juan, and Zurich. 

North of the border, Air Canada (TO: AC) is increasing the number of scheduled flights with passenger jets as freighters to more cities, including Auckland, New Zealand; Brussels; Seoul; Sydney; and Zurich.

As of last Thursday, the airline had operated more than 550 cargo-only flights, according to a customer note from Tim Strauss, vice president of cargo.

Air Canada was an early adopter of removing seats from planes to clear space for boxes of personal protective equipment and other lightweight goods. It has converted three Boeing 777-300ER aircraft and recently removed the seats from an Airbus A330-300, which is now operating scheduled flights to and from Tel Aviv, Israel. And regional partner Jazz Aviation is remodeling Dash-8 turboprops without seats to make domestic cargo runs.