Seat bags help Alaska Airlines carry more cabin cargo

Workers in yellow vests strap yellow bags to passenger seats to hold packages instead of people. This is an Alaska Airlines flight.

Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) is the first carrier in North America to use special bags from maintenance service provider Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. (HAECO) to hold packages on passenger seats, enabling aircraft in cargo-only mode to carry more freight each flight.

The in-seat package stowage system was installed on a Boeing 737-900 to carry goods such as mail, medical equipment, packages and other freight, Alaska Airlines said in a news release Wednesday.

The passenger-freighter, which complements Alaska Air’s three B737-700 pure freighters, is operating scheduled cargo flights through December to support peak season shipping demand, but will be available for charter use or scheduled service as needed into the new year, said Rick Bendix, marketing and business development manager for Alaska Air Cargo

Utilizing seats, overhead bins and closets in the passenger cabin adds 13,500 pounds of cargo capacity to the available payload (16,500 pounds) in the bellyhold, increasing profitability.

Alaska Air reassigned a few 737 jets for limited freighter operations after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out most passenger travel and forced airlines to drastically reduce flights. In April, the cargo division began testing multiple methods of loading, unloading and storing cargo in the cabin.The Federal Aviation Administration gave airlines the green light to store cargo on seats in late May, but meeting the agency’s requirements for modifying the interior and getting approval for its specific stowage system took a bit longer than anticipated, Bendix explained.

Two cargo load agents will ride in the cabin of the virtual freighter to ensure cargo is properly secured and provide fire suppression if required.

HAECO has performed heavy maintenance and reconfiguration work for Alaska for more than a decade. Bendix said the strong existing relationship, ease of installation and the ability to protect cabin seats from damage were the primary factors in selecting the HAECO seat bags.

More passenger aircraft are available for freighter operations if needed, Bendix said. 

Several airlines are using HAECO products to facilitate cabin storage, including between-seat stowage bags and small, track-mounted pallet systems in place of seats, said David Kelly, HAECO’s vice president of marketing.

Handling cargo in the passenger cabin is labor-intensive and less efficient because of the small access doors and difficulty maneuvering with seats in place. 

Many international airlines have adopted the cabin-cargo model, with some even removing seats to load more on the floor. U.S. carriers such as United Airlines operate some cargo-only international flights with seat cargo, but none are flying mini-freighters without seats. Delta Air Lines removed seats from a single Boeing 777 aircraft this summer and decommissioned it a few weeks later. 

Meanwhile, Alaska Air Group said Thursday it expects revenue to be down 60% to 65% in November compared to 2019 and revenue passenger miles to fall back from October levels due to softening demand as the coronavirus surges again and governments impose travel restrictions. The company said cash burn improved last month to $97 million, but expects outward cash flow of $125 million to $150 million in November as ticket sales falter.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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