The Boeing modification team has developed solutions for airlines that facilitate cargo carriage on passenger aircraft, reflecting the reality that air cargo demand could outstrip capacity beyond the summer months.
While regulators swiftly granted temporary exemptions allowing operators to utilize cabin space for medical equipment and humanitarian aid related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Boeing is working on multiple fronts to standardize processes that enable temporary reconfiguration of passenger cabins to carry cargo.
The aerospace giant is developing upgrades that enable operators to carry ever more cargo onboard their passenger aircraft. Boeing has developed solutions that include safety guidelines and instructions for loading cargo to move it through passenger doors onto seats and, after seat removal, securing cargo to seat tracks using fire-retardant cargo bags, covers, nets and tie-down straps.
The acute need to utilize passenger aircraft to carry cargo became apparent in mid-March with the sudden decoupling of lower hold and maindeck capacity in the air cargo supply chain. In a matter of days, more than 80% of the world’s passenger fleet was idled, vaporizing about 43% of available air cargo capacity.
During the early days of the pandemic in mid-March, Boeing’s response focused on providing operators with technical guidance about how to qualify for exemptions to carry medical cargo. A series of multi-operator messages, or MOMs, were dispatched to all Boeing commercial aircraft operators, offering guidance on weight limits and other pertinent information so carriers could petition their local regulators for exemptions to carry cargo on passenger decks. In the weeks since, operators have requested more permanent solutions that go beyond those exemptions.
“We’re in a unique situation right now, where we have a combination of a capacity shortage and higher yields. This is leading airlines to find innovative ways to use their parked passenger airplanes for cargo flights,” said George Alabi, Boeing’s regional director of product marketing.
Boeing is also working with regulatory agencies to issue new procedures that will allow carriers to strap cargo to passenger seats using cargo nets within Boeing’s new seat bags.
While moving cargo on seats may appeal to narrowbody operators moving low-density cargo, operators of all types are looking at seat removal to transport cargo on passenger aircraft. Even for carriers that don’t intend to move cargo on passenger decks, seat removal reduces operating empty weight (OEW), lowering fuel consumption, and may allow more cargo to be carried or extended missions. The seat-removal process is expected to be approved by EASA in a matter of days. Guidance on an FAA approval schedule is not available.
Portugal-based Euro Atlantic Airways has already modified aircraft according to Boeing’s SB to carry medical cargo on seats, and is now operating 737, 767 and 777 aircraft under minor change approval.
Just how many aircraft will be reconfigured as makeshift freighters depends on how quickly passenger aviation recovers, and the trajectory of the airfreight market.
“I think it’s going to follow a lot of what’s going on with the passenger air traffic — and obviously, there are a lot of unknowns around how quickly the market’s going to recover and how much demand is going to hold up in the environment from an economic perspective,” said Stephen Emmert, director of modifications at Boeing. “We want to help our airline customers be flexible so they can respond to that uncertainty with a variety of options that are going to allow them to keep their airplanes flying as much as they can.”