Updated: 4 days ago
We've been closely monitoring the (largely very negative) impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the global aviation industry and most recently have done some research into the air freight / cargo sector.
This video from the excellent Wendover Productions on YouTube gives a good overview and we've used it as a jumping off point to look into some of the topics and solutions in a little more detail, and pull some of the latest data as it relates to the UK and Europe in particular.
The Backdrop: An unprecedented drop in demand
The global drop in air traffic is without precedent. Whilst air cargo keeps the wheels of global industry turning and urgently needed supplies of medical goods and kit like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) flowing, it's worth taking stock of just how far from 'normal' the skies are at present.
The video above notes that on a normal day in April 2019 there were around 500 flights per day between Europe and the US vs about 80 per day at present. The latest data from Eurocontrol broadly supports this analysis, with flights from the EU's Schengen area + the UK + Ireland having stabilised at around 90 flights per day, "many of which are cargo" as of April 27th - that's just over 80% down on 2019 traffic levels :
The European picture in isolation is even starker with traffic throughout April 2020 having been suppressed at average levels around 90% lower than in 2019:
With the global air cargo market split about 50-50 between belly freight in the holds of passenger aircraft vs freighter aircraft there is indeed a capacity shortfall. So many long haul passenger routes are on ice that Wendover estimate as much as 23% of worldwide freight capacity might be parked or in storage.
They note that air cargo demand is still at around at 85% of normal levels as of March 2020 whilst capacity is at 77% - so a shortfall of 8% has resulted in a spike in air cargo prices, especially in routes between Asia (where much of the world's PPE is produced) and Europe and the US (the current epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic). An All Nippon Airways (ANA) spokesperson in Japan was reported on March 14th as saying that air freight rates per kilo had already increased by as much as 50% to 100% (Source: Nikkei).
With next to no passengers to fly, a capacity shortfall and high cargo prices many airlines have turned to squeezing as much cargo as they can into passenger jets, calculating that they can turn a profit where normally it might not be possible.
From Bums on Seats to Boxing Clever in the Cabin
We took a look at how passenger jets are faring as wannabe freighters - it's a fascinating glimpse into how rapidly the aviation industry is able to innovate, whilst maintaining highly regulated standards of safety.
Over 1,000 so-called 'passenger freighters' (Source: Cargo Facts Consulting / @CargoFacts) were reported to be in service worldwide as of May 5th 2020 with the Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliners the most common, followed by Airbus A330s and A350s.
To maximise the profitability of these so-called 'passenger-to-freight' operations many airlines have started to use the passenger cabin to stow freight, in addition to the more suited belly cargo holds of their airliners. Passenger aircraft are however not certified to carry cargo in the passenger cabin other than in overhead lockers or under the seats - and that only allows for small packages in relatively small quantities. Reconfigurations that allow freight to be carried on seats require an operator to have approval from their National Aviation Authority (NAA) - and many have been able to implement such changes quickly with the use of approved netting to secure goods for example.
Commercial aviation it should be remembered is not only a highly regulated industry but a remarkably adaptable one, and on May 4th the industry's global trade association IATA issued a 30-page guidance document which sought to bring some clarity to their members on how best to adapt passenger cabins for carrying cargo.
A range of new options are already starting to hit the market and gain regulatory approval, including robust cabin seat bags (CSBs) such as those just certified by EASA from Colibri Aero and J&C Aero that enable up to 252kg of freight to be carried per triple seat block:
There are also hard shell offerings being developed such as these from Dutch company Trip & Co that offer 80kg of carrying capacity per seat:
The Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company 'HAECO' meanwhile have developed four different solutions within just a month, all aimed at solving the freight-in-the-passenger-cabin problem. Their US-based subsidiary HAECO Cabin Solutions' offerings includes on-seat, on-floor and palletised storage systems:
Considerations that must be paid attention to range from the wellbeing and safety of staff loading/unloading cargo using passenger stairs to load control, fire safety and minimisation of damage to the seats themselves. That solutions are being designed, developed and approved for commercial use by regulators within such tight timescales is no small achievement.
SEATS OUT, PALLETS IN
Taking seats out completely takes more time and costs more money, but yields great gains in terms of available space and therefore reduced weight and potentially greater aircraft range - particularly useful as unusual routes are cropping up (as noted in the video above) that link distant city pairs that stretch the legs of even the longest haul, latest generation airliners - such as Sydney to Toronto direct.
Whilst a national authority can approve freight-on-seat changes, removal and replacement with eg. palletised freight can require approval by the aircraft manufacturer, and so is taking a little longer - but should long haul passenger numbers fail to meaningfully pick up in the medium-term we suspect will become the preferred and most efficient option for operators that can afford it.
Airlines who are looking at taking seats out of 777 passenger cabins include Air Canada (who have no cargo-only aircraft in their fleet) and Cathay Pacific who will use it to supplement their existing fleet of some 20 Boeing 747 freighters (Source: Forbes). China Eastern are reported to have already partially removed seats on some of their own 777s as well.
Lufthansa and China Eastern are amongst the carriers operating Airbus A330s in a passenger-to-freight configuration with seats either partially or totally removed - typically the simpler economy class seats are the cheapest, quickest and easiest to remove.
On April 30th Airbus itself announced that they were developing a modification for both their A330 and A350 widebody airliners that would enable the installation of freight pallets directly on to the floor tracks that normally secure rows of seats:
The company's solution (packaged as a Service Bulletin or 'SB') involves complete removal of seats and in-flight entertainment, the installation of cargo pallets and safety equipment and reversion back to the aircraft's original configuration. Usefully Airbus will also manage the process of obtaining the necessary certification from the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA).
Not too Late for an A380 full of Freight
Airbus' 'super jumbo' A380 jets, designed specifically to move as many people around the world as possible, have fared much less well however. In a recent interview with the UAE's The National Emirates President Tim Clark (who will step down in June after 35 years at the company as reported by CNBC), went as far as to say:
"We know the A380 is over...but the A350 and 787 will always have a place...they may have orders pushed back, but eventually they will come back, and they will be a better fit probably for global demand in the years post the pandemic."
Lufthansa's MRO subsidiary Lufthansa Technik have other ideas however, having just secured a contract to perform a temporary passenger-to-freight conversion of an Airbus A380 for an undisclosed client, as reported by Flight Global on May 6th.
They're confident the solution (which involves seat removal to enable the use of freight pallets on seat tracks) could even become more permanent if so desired, with the transfer to a Supplemental Type Certificate at a later date. Airbus itself had previously attempted to market an A380-F freighter variant of the 'super heavy' aircraft as long ago as 2005 but shelved the plans due to a lack of demand and string of cancelled orders from airlines including Emirates, FedEx and UPS.
Swansong for the Queen of the Skies
Meanwhile the Boeing 747 is the jet that just won't die. Whilst passenger variants around the world come to the end of their useful (and commercially viable) lives as airliners, they're seeing a renaissance as heavyweight freighters aiding in the fight against COVID-19. KLM, Qantas, United, Delta and British Airways are just a few of the operators accelerating their retirement programmes for the 747.
The efficient new breed of airliners such as the twin-engined Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 will replace 747s on many long haul passenger routes - thanks to far greater fuel efficiency and more liberal ETOPS rules that govern how far a plane with only two engines is allowed to fly over water - basically, further now than ever before. Smaller aircraft with longer range also match well to the evolution away from the aviation industry's hub-and-spoke model, enabling hitherto unconnected 'non-prime' / regional city pairs to be profitably connected - there are fewer seats to fill and shorter runways available for operations with the smaller jets.
Boeing's 'Jumbo Jets' are seeing out their 50 year tenure as 'Queen of the Skies' in typically workhorse fashion however seeing a resurgence in popularity as freighters, as reported by Business Insider. Operators as diverse as Kalita Air, UPS, Lufthansa, Korean Air, Atlas, Asiana, China Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Cargolux, Polar Air and Nippon all appear to have 747 freighters in service and working hard.
For comparison of the 747 and A380 it's remarkable to note that at the time of writing this article on May 7th 2020 there wasn't a single A380 being tracked by FlightRadar24.com anywhere in the world whilst no less than 78 venerable Jumbos (mostly freighters) were criss-crossing the airways of the world:
Shortfall - filled?
We can see that non-cargo aircraft operating as makeshift freighters now contribute a significant proportion of air traffic. Eurocontrol data from March and April show that it's risen to around 10% of total traffic in European airspace in the last week (as reported by their Director General Eamonn Brennan and his team on Twitter). This takes cargo flights of all types close to constituting one in every three aircraft in the skies over Europe:
That said - the picture across Europe is still of air traffic around 90% down vs 2019 levels - an extraordinary change. In future posts we'll take a look at how / if traffic levels and the aviation industry itself will recover / evolve to meet whatever 'new normal' emerges.
We're sure of one thing - the clever engineers, pilots, cabin crew, ground handlers, administrators and thousands of other talented individuals in the aviation industry will go on to do great things again.
We're in the early stages of putting together a plan for how we might be a part of helping to share what comes next for the global aviation industry, and put all those bright minds to work building a shared future - get in touch if you too want to help build the next generation of great aviation businesses.