Scheduled cargo flights with passenger planes gain traction

Cargo loaded from truck onto plane.

Virgin Atlantic is the latest airline to put greater resources into operating scheduled cargo routes after the industry started in March offering some on-demand cargo charters when the primary market for carrying people dried up with the coronavirus pandemic.

When that idea took off, airlines put more unused assets into cargo service flying on regular routes with set schedules, better enabling shippers to plan ahead and book blocks of space rather than entire aircraft.

On Tuesday, U.K.-based Virgin Atlantic said it will operate 90 dedicated cargo flights per week in May to help shippers that are struggling to move goods because nearly 90% of passenger service went away — and with it the cargo space in the lower hold of those planes.

Virgin will operate routes with greater frequency to key markets in the U.S., Hong Kong and China, India, Israel, and South Africa. Last week it said it would open scheduled cargo service to Tel Aviv, Israel, beginning May 6. It will also operate special cargo flights through Dublin for the first time, enabling Ireland’s medical technology, electronics and other industries to achieve same-day connections to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg.

The airline is using 10 Boeing 787-9 aircraft, which can carry up to 55 tons of cargo.

The May flying program includes:

• 17 flights a week to/from New York JFK.

• Nine flights a week to/from Los Angeles.

• Twice weekly services from JFK and Los Angeles to Dublin.

• Twice weekly departures from Dublin to London.

• Daily flights to/from Shanghai.

• Four flights per week to/from Hong Kong.

• Two weekly flights to/from Tel Aviv.

• Three flights per week to/from Johannesburg.

• The resumption of two weekly flights to/from Mumbai, India.

Virgin’s cargo operation now has 14 aircraft, including four Airbus A350 aircraft capable of carrying up to 49 tons of goods. The airline says it averages 13 flights per week for customers that book the entire plane on an ad hoc basis.

In related news, Lufthansa Airlines is flying two daily flights between Beijing and Munich, with four Airbus A350 aircraft that have been modified to carry boxes of personal protective equipment, mainly masks, in the passenger seats.

It is flying similar missions with six Airbus A330 planes based in Frankfurt, Germany.

The daily cargo flights with passenger jets are expected to continue at least through mid-May, Lufthansa said.

Virgin also is putting cargo in seats.

Other airlines with major scheduled operations include Delta and American.