Emirates and Qatar Airways have operated more cargo-only flights with their passenger aircraft than any other carrier since last March, according to data on more than twenty airlines, based on research by Cargo Facts and information provided by the carriers.
Collectively, Emirates and Qatar Airways — the world’s two largest combination carriers by FTKs — have flown more than 50,000 such legs between them alone, far outpacing other global airlines.
What began as a temporary stopgap measure over a year ago to mitigate the loss of cargo capacity due to the suspension of international widebody flights quickly spread to all corners of the globe, and has now become an everyday, integral part of many major airlines’ operations.
To date, Cargo Facts has recorded more than 2,600 passenger aircraft used on a cargo-only mission at least once.
But many carriers have gone beyond just operating an aircraft with a full belly and an empty passenger cabin. In the early stages of the pandemic, airlines began utilizing seats and overhead compartments for lightweight cargo, predominantly masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Soon afterward, as capacity became even scarcer, a few carriers proceeded to remove seats in the cabin to create extra volume, securing boxes to the seat tracks on the floor with cargo nets.
As several carriers have told Cargo Facts, the scale of passenger-freighter operations dialed back slightly last summer, when governments lifted travel restrictions and opened up their borders. However, that soon ended as infections spread and new strains were identified. By the autumn, cargo-only operations were once again on the rise.
At least sixty-five different airlines have now reconfigured a total of more than 210 aircraft to some degree. While some have already had their cabins restored and are back in passenger service, others have been reconfigured for cargo a second time, and other carriers have only just begun to modify their aircraft.
An overview of passenger-freighter operations at more than twenty airlines for which we have data shows the approximate number of flights from March 2020 to mid-March 2021. Included is whether they operate 777-300ERs in their fleets, and the types they have reconfigured. Note that a few of these figures are estimates, and that some carriers have yet to provide a rough number, including IAG and Etihad. Cargo Facts believes that some of the Chinese airlines may be among the top ten.
Passenger-freighter operations at 24 airlines as of mid-March 2021
|Singapore Airlines||6,600||✓||777-300ER, A320|
|Air Canada||6,000||✓||777-300ER, A330-300|
|Ethiopian Airlines||5,645||✓||777-300ER, A350-900, 787-9, 767-300ER, 737-800, Q400|
|Delta Air Lines||2,500||777-200ER|
|Air New Zealand||1,624||✓|
|TAP Air Portugal||1,027||A330-200, A330-900|
Sources: Cargo Facts Passenger-Freighter Database, carriers, FlightRadar24
Emirates was already the top operator of cargo-only flights in our analysis six months into the pandemic, so perhaps it is unsurprising to see the Dubai-based airline leading the way, at 27,800 flights.
To this day, Emirates still operates an extensive scheduled network of passenger-freighter flights, in many instances with multiple frequencies a day. The carrier is by far the largest operator of the 777-300ER — clearly the most popular aircraft model worldwide for cargo-only use, whether reconfigured or not — with around 120 in its fleet.
Emirates said last year that it would reconfigure ten 777-300ERs but has further increased its “mini-freighter” fleet to sixteen.
Hiran Perera, senior vice president of cargo planning and freighters at Emirates, told Cargo Facts that the carrier’s passenger-freighter flights have been spread across all geographical regions. “In particular, the flights have provided important cargo connectivity to markets in the Middle East and [Gulf Cooperation Council] region, as well as connecting markets in Asia and Europe,” he said.
Emirates continues to uplift a broad variety of cargo on its reconfigured 777s, including PPE and related supplies.
Perera said that, even as its passenger network starts ramping up, the ever-evolving situation and the difficulty in predicting changes means Emirates has to monitor demand on a market-by-market basis. “As and when markets open up and passenger operations come back more or less to their pre-pandemic levels, we will assess the capacity gap in the market and take necessary steps to adjust supply in close consultation with our customers and ensure that we deploy capacity where it is needed,” he said.
The deployment of both reconfigured and non-reconfigured aircraft is dependent on the demand-supply equation but Emirates will remain flexible and agile, Perera added.
2. Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways told Cargo Facts that it has operated more than 55,000 cargo flights since March 2020, including both freighters and passenger freighters. We estimate 25,200 of those to be cargo-only flights on passenger aircraft.
The carrier said it has now removed seats from six of its 777-300ERs to complement its fleet of twenty-six full freighters.
In November 2020, Qatar Airways added to its cargo-only operations seven new 787-9s that had not even entered passenger service yet after delivery by Boeing.
Chief Cargo Officer Guillaume Halleux told Cargo Fact that the cargo-planning and passenger-planning teams do not compete for aircraft, and that the coordination between the two activities works “extremely well” to serve the interests of the airline as a whole, both during and after the pandemic.
6. United Airlines
United began cargo-only operations on March 19, 2020, and has now surpassed 11,000 passenger-freighter flights, the most of any U.S.-based airline.
United has not carried out any reconfigurations, but has used its large Boeing widebody fleet to destinations in Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America. The carrier has now also carried more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccines.
7. Air France-KLM
The Franco-Dutch airline group told Cargo Facts that it has now operated around 10,500 cargo-only flights with its passenger aircraft, with Asia operations at the top of the list. Air France has also deployed its passenger freighters to Africa and Francophone markets in the Indian Ocean, as well as to North and South America, while KLM has in the last two months focused on South America due to a hard travel ban by the Dutch government affecting countries there.
Air France reconfigured several 777-300ERs last year but those aircraft are back in passenger layout, according to the carrier, although the group still holds regulatory approval to load cargo on seats. KLM brought three 747 Combis out of retirement for cargo flights last year but retired those aircraft at the end of October 2020.
Air France-KLM told Cargo Facts that it currently still has cargo-only flights scheduled for this summer and will implement cargo flights in its winter schedule if travel restrictions persist.
8. All Nippon Airways (ANA)
Japan-based ANA had only operated around 1,700 cargo-only flights by September 2020, but six months later has taken that number to more than 8,000. The airline told Cargo Facts that March 2021 will be a monthly record for its passenger-freighter operations, with around 1,424 flights planned.
ANA, which began using seats for cargo last April but has not reconfigured any aircraft, said that juggling them between cargo-only and passenger service is not a huge issue at this point, given that it expects to operate just 19% of its scheduled passenger flights from March to June 2021.
9. American Airlines
American has significantly ramped up its cargo-only operations since September 2020, and has now operated more than 7,800 flights using its 777s and 787s.
The airline told Cargo Facts that, around late last summer and into the fall, it worked out a much clearer timeline and sequence to schedule its cargo-only flights with a structured approach, compared to the early days of the pandemic.
American said that it has had more aircraft available for cargo flights from late 2020 up to now but expects to resume more scheduled passenger services in the spring and summer. The airline will have to find the right balance between deploying aircraft on those flights and on routes that will remain cargo-only, such as Hong Kong.
12. Korean Air
Even with one of the largest freighter fleets for a scheduled combination carrier, Korean Air has now operated around 6,500 cargo-only flights with its passenger aircraft.
The airline, which did not begin flying reconfigured aircraft until the second half of 2020, confirmed that it has now reconfigured ten 777-300ERs and is loading PPE, clothing, perishables and various product parts into the cabins of these aircraft.
14. Ethiopian Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines has operated cargo-only flights to destinations in Africa, western Europe, Asia, the Middles East, and North and South America.
The airline, which last year reconfigured more than twenty passenger aircraft, told Cargo Facts that it is currently operating seventeen aircraft with seats removed, and is using them not just for PPE shipments, but also other medical items, test kits, flowers, garments and mail.
Russia-based Aeroflot told Cargo Facts that, from April 2020, it reallocated a number of 777-300ERs and A330-300s for cargo-only charters to offset the capacity shortage, but did not move to remove any seats from the cabins. Instead, like many airlines, Aeroflot opted for the quicker and cheaper method of disconnecting the cabin systems and covering the seats with a protective film.
From around November 2020 to January 2021, Aeroflot repurposed a total of nineteen 777-300ERs and ten A330-300s in this way. On some routes, it carried passengers on one leg and freight and mail on the return flight.
Aeroflot said it had operated the most cargo-only services to Southeast Asia, Europe, Germany, the U.K., Austria, Italy, Israel and the U.S. Early 2021 has seen rising volumes that include Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, according to Aeroflot.
21. Asiana Airlines
South Korea-based Asiana Airlines is one of just two airlines to have removed seats from A350s, according to Cargo Facts’ database. The airline reconfigured two in late 2020 and added two more in early 2021.
Asiana told Cargo Facts that it does not expect passenger frequencies to reach 2019 levels until around 2024 at least, so there is no competition for the deployment of aircraft at this stage. The carrier noted that it can reconfigure each A350 in about a week, should it need them for passenger service.
Germany-based TUI, as Air Cargo World recently reported, has been heavily involved in cargo-only charters for the automotive industry. The carrier told Cargo Facts that it will hit a new record in March.
TUI said that the vast majority of its cargo flying began in December 2020, and it is now using five 787-8s and five 787-9s. The airline is also planning to have its first reconfigured 767-300ER ready for service by the first week of April.
[Edited April 6 to add TAP Air Portugal.]
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