Airlines have also consolidated routes and eliminated thousands of flights that duplicated the more popular ones several times a day. Ultimately, though, they’ve needed to keep aircraft in the skies in order to serve the customers who are ready and able to fly and to fulfill commitments made in exchange for the government funding. But one of the paramount reasons the airplanes have kept flying turned out to be one of the most important revenue sources during this crisis: cargo.
Though the air transport industry, from large cargo haulers to the consumer-oriented shippers like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, have their own fleets of aircraft circling the globe constantly, passenger-carrying aircraft have always plugged the gaps by loading shipping containers into belly storage. That capability took a hit as the airlines cut their routes, so many have begun flying cargo-only flights to keep cash flow up and crews and personnel busy. United made this switch almost immediately, assembling a team back in March. “I think it was less than a week from the time we proposed the idea until we were actually flying a cargo-only airplane,” says Chris Busch, managing director of United’s cargo operations for the Americas. “Now we’ve executed over 8,000 of these flights.”
Those planes have carried more than half a billion pounds in cargo thus far. Though the aircraft retain their passenger seats, belly storage is dedicated solely to those loads, rather than a mix of cargo and travelers’ luggage. Engineers had to calculate the impact of more weight in the bottom and less weight up top to ensure the airplanes’ balance wouldn’t be compromised, and the overall financial logic of flying just cargo and no high-dollar business-class flyers had to make sense, to make certain they wouldn’t lose money on the deals. Once those hurdles were cleared, Busch says, the challenge became integrating the flights into airline operations normally geared toward passenger flights and managing the arrival and departure of the different loads, which could include pharmaceuticals, perishables, and ecommerce packages.
Almost all major airlines worldwide have pursued similar strategies, citing the financial lifelines the services provide and the relative ease of handling the delivery needs of stuff rather than people. (Presumably because pallets of inkjet cartridges and soccer balls don’t whine about poor Wi-Fi service.) The airlines are also positioning themselves to help distribute Covid-19 vaccines as they become available. Because vaccines require precisely chilled conditions, air shippers have had to develop procedures to ensure the safety of both the cargo and the crew. Most of the vaccines will be kept frozen with dry ice, which is classified by air transport regulators as dangerous—it releases carbon dioxide as it evaporates, so adequate venting is essential. According to United, a single Boeing 777-200 can carry a million doses of a vaccine.
Busch says that United’s cargo-shipping skills will likely remain a key part of the airline’s post-pandemic operations. “We are absolutely a passenger airline first, but on the cargo side we’ve shown what we can do,” he says. “So they’ll look over the next few years, when planning routes, at where the cargo demand is, and how it might match up with passenger flight operations.”
But even cargo-only flights won’t be as profitable, long-term, as properly filling the seats above all the printer ink and soccer balls with actual human beings. For that, all the key boxes will have to be ticked—corporate green lights, receptive destinations, and passenger safety, perceived or otherwise. Travel industry critic Zach Honig, editor-at-large for The Points Guy, notes that passengers will expect the health precautions airlines have put in place to continue. This includes mask mandates, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, electrostatic or UV virus-killing treatments, and middle-seat blocking, even if the latter may not be strictly necessary. “Airlines have already moved away from this, citing studies which conclude that there’s a low risk of catching Covid-19 on a plane,” Honig says. “Still, the middle seat will continue to be an especially unappealing option even after the pandemic, given that it’ll be especially difficult to avoid close contact onboard.”
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