German MRO and conversion house Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) has launched in-cabin cargo container boxes, a new product allowing airlines operating reconfigured passenger planes to increase cargo storage capacity in the main cabin.
The global logistics industry has adjusted to the reduced capacity spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic with additional freighter aircraft charters and other means, leading to reduced passenger-freighter operations and some skepticism as to their viability. However, EFW said it has received requests for cargo capacity solutions from passenger airlines, indicating that some interest in the operations continues.
The EFW boxes are entering the prototype phase from the concept phase, with several airlines reviewing first offers from EFW to adopt their use, EFW told Cargo Facts.
In order to successfully move cargo in space designed for passenger, travel airlines have adopted an array of strategies, including securing main-cabin cargo primarily in overhead storage bins, using nets to secure cargo to seats, and removing the seats altogether. However, while seat removal offers the most space for cargo in the main cabin, this option still presents certain challenges that full freighter aircraft don’t face — namely, no cargo-loading door on the main deck, and no cargo-loading system to provide efficient and secure loading of unit load devices or ULDs.
EFW sees products like the new cargo containers as a means to resolve some of the difficulties of operating passenger planes for cargo-only service. The boxes are wheeled, allowing for loading without a cargo-loading system, and designed to latch into predefined positions in existing tracks for passenger seats. The boxes are also small enough to fit through normal aircraft doors on narrow and widebody aircraft and made from lightweight sandwich panels. The latter is an important consideration as main decks of passenger aircraft are not reinforced for heavier cargo like freighter aircraft main decks.
The cargo boxes are “an opportunity for passenger aircraft to be more efficient with cabin cargo, as boxes can be loaded and unloaded in the warehouse,” Anke Lemke, EFW’s head of communications, said. “It will help maximize the load factor in times when the passenger cabin still cannot be fully utilized for passengers. The cargo box offers to passenger airlines the opportunity to react flexibly in current times, even though the usage of passenger aircraft for a fully loaded cabin for air cargo transport might be a temporary solution.”
On the other hand, it is unclear how long such temporary solutions might be necessary. Lemke noted that it is “a common understanding in the industry” that the effects of COVID-19 on global passenger demand are likely to linger, with a return to pre-pandemic demand not expected for years.
“Seeing the COVID-caused lack of air cargo capacity, and considering the growing demand, freighter conversions will remain part of the answer, but with certain lead times and linked to slot availabilities,” Lemke added. “Here is the chance for ‘preighters’ — supported by our cabin cargo box — to fill the gap efficiently until sufficient capacity for freighters can be provided by conversion houses.”
While not every airline currently operating cargo-only flights will eventually opt for freighter aircraft, EFW is optimistic that the increased focus on cargo will lead many passenger airlines to question the place of cargo in their business plans.
“Passenger airlines which are focused on optimizing passenger travel will gain more in-depth experiences with air cargo transport and might see a business case for entering this business with more resources using converted freighters in their fleet — with all the value-add such aircraft offer,” Lemke said.
EFW joins other engineering companies in offering in-cabin cargo solutions for aircraft that have had seats removed. In April, HAECO Cabin Solutions launched four different types of storage devices allowing airlines to carry cargo together with passengers in the main-deck cabins of narrowbody or widebody aircraft during the pandemic, while Airbus launched a modification involving attaching pallets to seat rails. In June, Colibri Aero and J&C Aero launched cargo containers designed to be installed permanently in the cabins of widebody passenger aircraft. Most recently, in early July, Trip & Co announced it had made a patent application for cargo stowage containers that are affixed to the cabin floor in place of seats.