Faced with shrinking route networks, airlines began using passenger widebody passenger aircraft solely to transport cargo in March. Now, almost six months later, these operations are not only ongoing at many of the world’s major airlines, but represent a financial lifeline against the slow recovery of the passenger market.
Tens of thousands of cargo-only flights have been carried out using thousands of aircraft in various configurations: with cargo on the cabin floor and seats removed; on seats and in overhead compartments; or only in the bellyhold. In any case, it is unlikely anybody could have predicted the sheer scale of these operations.
Here is a look at some of the carriers operating the most extensive cargo-only flights with passenger aircraft from March through August, based on Cargo Facts research and information provided by the airlines. Note that some of these figures are estimates. Cargo Facts believes Ethiopian Airlines, IAG and some of the Chinese airlines may also be among the top ten, but has yet to receive more information from these carriers.
Cargo-only flights operated with passenger aircraft from March through the end of August
Leading the pack by far is U.A.E.-based Emirates, with approximately 16,000 cargo-only flights. Toward the end of March, the carrier set up a scheduled network of routes served by its 777-300ERs and has progressively expanded that network, which now consists of around 120 destinations, many with multiple daily frequencies.
With the largest fleet of 777-300ERs — about 130 — perhaps it’s no surprise that Emirates tops the list. According to the Cargo Facts Passenger-Freighter Database, Emirates has used 129 of them for a cargo-only flight at least once. In June the carrier announced it would be adding capacity by removing seats from ten aircraft.
2. Qatar Airways
Despite maintaining a fairly sizeable international passenger network throughout the pandemic, Qatar Airways still operated approximately 9,600 cargo-only flights with its A350s, 777-300ERs and 787-8s from March to the end of August. Qatar Airways also has the largest freighter fleet of any combination carrier, with four A330-200Fs, two 747-8Fs, and sixteen 777Fs.
3. Japan Airlines (JAL)
At 5,900 flights, JAL is the most highly ranked carrier on our list that does not operate any full freighters of its own. According to Cargo Facts’ database, JAL has operated more than 80 of its aircraft on cargo-only flights domestically and internationally, including A350s, 767s, 777s and 787s.
The carrier told Air Cargo World it does not plan to reconfigure any aircraft, but will continue to focus on bellyhold operations and partners with freighter operators such as Kalitta Air.
4. Cathay Pacific
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and subsidiary Cathay Dragon were among the first airlines to deploy passenger aircraft on cargo-only flights, with A330-300s to a few cities in China beginning in March. Since then, Cathay has used its A330s, A350s, and 777-300ERs on around 5,500 flights to carry cargo to destinations worldwide, supplementing its own fleet of 20 747Fs.
However, unlike a few other Asian carriers, Cathay’s cargo traffic continued to fall in the second quarter and cargo revenue only grew by 8.8% year on year in the first half of 2020. Cathay reconfigured two of its 777-300ERs in July, and restored the role of cargo director in September.
5. Turkish Airlines
Turkish Airlines began cargo-only operations in late March, and at the end of August had operated around 5,000 flights with about 60 passenger aircraft, consisting mostly of A330s and 777-300ERs but also newly-delivered 787s.
The carrier also operates a freighter fleet of ten A330-200Fs and eight 777Fs.
6. United Airlines
United recently announced that it had operated its 5,000th cargo-only flight — the most of any North American airline. The carrier, which has no freighters, launched cargo-only operations with a charter in March from Chicago (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA), and soon developed a scheduled network of flights to Asia and Europe operated by 777s and 787s.
Thanks to these operations, United was the only major U.S. airline to report a year-on-year increase in cargo revenue for the second quarter.
7. Air France-KLM
Collectively, Air France and KLM have used more than sixty passenger aircraft for 4,600 cargo-only flights, consisting mostly of 777s and 787s. Apart from Asia and North America, the group has also served many African and Latin American destinations with these flights.
While Air France reconfigured around four 777-300ERs by removing certain economy seat blocks, KLM brought back three 747-400 Combis from retirement. Both airlines began using seats for cargo in April.
Here are some other airlines with significant numbers of cargo-only flights.
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