As COVID-19 swept across the world and passenger aircraft were grounded, the vital air freight capacity they provide was decimated. Airlines started scrambling for ways to continue to carry cargo without flying empty jets. Thomas Haynes examines the way operators and manufacturers have helped to solve this problem.
Below the floor of every passenger aircraft is the belly hold. This space not only caters for your suitcase, it also allows additional air freight to be carried, adding vital capacity to the global air cargo market.
When the pandemic struck, this capability vanished almost overnight as airline after airline grounded their fleets. Around 45-50% of global air freight capacity comes from the belly holds of passenger aircraft and once most of them were grounded, the scale of the shortfall became clear. Pair this with a meteoric rise in demand – caused by the need to transport PPE and medical supplies – and what you get is a huge problem.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was quick to move on approving the carriage of cargo in the passenger cabin. On April 1, guidance was issued which said operators could transport medical supplies once an Approved Design Organisation (ADO) signed off on the modification as a “minor change”. This shift only allows operators to carry masks, gloves and clothing on the seats of aircraft. While this was adequate to quell some of the immediate PPE transport needs, the demand for air freight was high across the board and it soon became clear that another option would be needed.
Many different solutions popped up from several providers. The basic principle for most is the removal of the seats to maximise the cabin capacity. The problem is, you can’t simply take the seats out and cram freight into the cabin. The cargo has to be tied down.
There are some downsides to simply loading cargo onto seats. One company that has been at the forefront of the effort to enable passenger airlines to pivot towards carrying cargo is Airbus.
Yann Lardet, the manufacturer’s vice president of Flight Operations Support and Training, commented: “When you put items on the seats you don’t want to damage your cabin, so you need to protect them with adequate plastic covers. The other negative aspect is that it is more difficult to load an aircraft when there are seats compared with when there is an empty cabin.”
In early April, the European airframer announced it had developed a solution to enable carriers to use their widebody aircraft for pure cargo operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically focused on its A330 and A350 family aircraft, the solution supports airlines to install freight pallets directly onto the cabin floor seat tracks, after the removal of the economy-class seats.
Lardet commented: “With all these aircraft on the ground, there was sudden lack of capacity in the market where demand was very high because of the crisis. We thought we had to have an initiative, and this is when we started to elaborate on the solution.”
In early April, the company launched a webinar with its customers to inform them of its objectives and what it could do for them. Normally, around 200-300 people attend the meetings but in a clear sign that demand was high for this type of conversion, the company’s webinar was attended by 1,200 people from 240 airlines. “It was confirmation to us that the demand was absolutely huge,” remarked Lardet.
Included as part of EASA’s guidance, rules were set out for the carriage of non-medical cargo in the passenger cabin. For example, cargo must be restrained and can’t be allowed to move around freely. Another is that the crew have to be able to firefight if required, so the aisles need to be left clear to enable them to move in the cabin.
Airbus issued an “approval dossier”, which guides operators through what they need to do to gain authorisation from their respective national aviation regulators.
Describing Airbus’ dossier, Lardet said: “It is a set of data and procedures, combined with a recommended hardware list that we provide to the operator for them to obtain approval from their national authority based on the EASA guidelines.
“There is some paperwork where they write what they intend to do, but with the support of the Airbus material it is pretty easy to get the approval from the authorities,” Lardet added.
A typical Airbus widebody holds around 30 tonnes (66,000lbs) of cargo in its belly hold. With the addition of the passenger cabin, operators are now able to carry an additional nine tonnes (20,000lbs) of freight. However, weight is just one dimension of cargo transportation; the other important factor to consider is the volume. The addition of the passenger cabin adds an extra 70-80m³ to an aircraft’s freight capacity.
Commenting on the economic impact of temporarily changing aircraft, Lardet said: “The cost of converting is very limited. First of all, the pallets you use are conventional pallets that are widely spread across airlines. This was really one of the key specifications that I put to our engineering teams was the reuse of existing materials.
“Once you have removed the seats, in approximately two hours you are ready to fly with pallets.”
The use of passenger aircraft for carrying air freight is not a new idea, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light the potential flexibility of an airlines’ fleet. One major question that remains is whether operators will be able to use this solution beyond the pandemic?
“For the time being, the guidelines from EASA are limited to eight months so it is meant to be used for the pandemic. However, we have seen that the regulators have been working on a number of evolutions to the regulations to allow these types of flights to continue beyond the pandemic,” Lardet said.
Concluding, Lardet said: “It is our pride at Airbus, despite our own challenges because of the crisis, to be able to continue to support operators and continue to innovate, to find solutions and to allow the generation of new source of revenues with the transport of cargo in these times of crisis for our customers.”
This whole exercise truly shows how quickly regulators and manufacturers can act when they need to. It didn’t take very much time for EASA to put out guidance. Airbus and other manufacturers then jumped on the project with gusto, and in doing so, all involved helped hundreds of operators meet the unprecedented demand for air freight – and most likely saved lives as a result.
Air Canada among many other airlines have been pivoting to carry freight in their passenger aircraft. The big difference between Airbus' solution and Air Canada's is that Airbus has developed a pallet system which secures the load to the pallet and then to the floor. This has additional safety benefits over other systems.