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Airlines ditch seats to replace passengers with tuna, gadgets and online goods

Under normal circumstances, about 60 per cent of air cargo globally is flown in the belly hold of passenger flights. With hundreds of those jets parked in deserts waiting out the pandemic, airfreight costs have spiralled: Rates to North America from Hong Kong are up almost 70 per cent from early January.

The world is a village and air cargo is the main street.

Guillaume Halleux, Qatar’s chief cargo officer

For Qantas Airways, medical freight out of China hit a peak in May and June. “What we saw were huge uplifts of light but very bulky freight — masks and gowns and gloves and the like. That was when we started to see airlines put light, fluffy boxes into passenger cabins,” said Nick McGlynn, who oversees Qantas’s freight sales and network as the unit’s chief customer officer.

That’s now subsided and Qantas has since been flying fresh produce from Australia into Asia including “significant amounts” of tuna to Japan and coral trout to Hong Kong, he said. On routes back to Australia, it’s dominated by medical supplies, car parts and electronics, as well as components for Caterpillar mining equipment from the US.

Fiji Airways is making a little extra from carrying seafood and kava, CEO Andre Viljoen said during a presentation last week.

Bloomberg Intelligence predicts belly capacity from passenger air fleets won’t return to pre-pandemic levels before 2022. Not every airline is able to pivot to address the changed circumstances. But those that can haven’t wasted any time.

Scaling up cargo capacity

In the US, United Airlines recently operated its 5000th cargo-only flight (the busiest air cargo routes are between Asia and North America.) The carrier’s revenue from cargo jumped more than 36 per cent in the second quarter to $US402 million ($553 million).

American Airlines, meanwhile, has relaunched cargo-only services after a 35-year hiatus. In September, it expects to operate more than 1000 cargo-only wide-body flights, primarily Boeing 777s and 787s, to 32 destinations in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

In Asia, Singapore Airlines’ budget long-haul arm Scoot last month removed the passenger seats from one of its Airbus A320s to free up more space, while Korean Air Lines, which is also converting planes, and Asiana Airlines eked out quarterly profits after flying jets loaded with technology components to sate consumer demand for at-home gadgets.

Emirates, the world’s fourth-biggest cargo carrier after Federal Express, Qatar Airways and United Parcel Service, said it “reacted very quickly,” scaling up its cargo network to around 50 destinations by early April, 75 by mid-May and 100 by the start of July.

“We’ve been able to connect more than 115 destinations with cargo capacity on a scheduled basis,” said Emirates’ Divisional Senior Vice President of Cargo, Nabil Sultan. “We worked round the clock to use not only our freighter fleet, but also our passenger aircraft for cargo flights.”

That’s not to say there isn’t an enormous amount of pain in global aviation. Airlines are hemorrhaging cash and laying off tens of thousands of staff.

While the cargo operations of Deutsche Lufthansa contributed a record €299 million ($488 million) to the group’s operating profit in the second quarter, and the operating margin of the airline’s cargo arm was a robust 39 per cent, the wider Lufthansa group suffered a massive €1.7 billion operating loss in the three-month period.


Still, in such a tough environment, every bit counts. Indonesia’s Lion Air is even hauling basic necessities like non-perishable food stuffs by plane across its vast archipelago.

“Canned foods, things you’d normally buy on your grocery trip, are being air flown because this is a more efficient way to have them delivered across the country,” Managing Director Daniel Putut said. “With passengers falling sharply, we have to find other revenue means.”

Qatar Airways, one of the world’s heavyweights in freight, doesn’t see cargo rates coming down for at least 12 months.

“The world is a village and air cargo is the main street,” said Guillaume Halleux, Qatar’s chief cargo officer. “Airlines in general have become the lifeline for the world, and airlines with strong strategies and agility have been able to sustain themselves most easily.”


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