With few willing to fly, airliners are transforming into cargo planes
Airlines around the world are cancelling hundreds of thousands of flights as travelers either opt not to travel or are outright banned due to coronavirus.
But some airlines are quickly repurposing their passenger planes to fly cargo to help weather the financial storm.
Video above: How transportation companies are helping people during the coronavirus outbreak
Last week, Wired reported that airlines had cancelled nearly 200,000 flights so far this year as a result of coronavirus. That’s been a combination of national policies temporarily halting or limiting flights, as well as travelers practicing social distancing.
The U.S. airline industry has already requested $50 billion in federal aid, Wired reported at the time.
A week later, and the situation is even worse.
With few passengers willing to fly during the outbreak, American Airlines made its first all-cargo flight in 35 years, and United Airlines is turning its largest planes into cargo flights as well.
But normal passenger flights also carry some amount of cargo, whether for carriers or for the U.S. (or any particular country’s) Postal Service, and losing those passenger flights has left a big cargo deficit.
Chicago's O’Hare International Airport "processes a record volume of just under two million metric tonnes of cargo per year worth over $200 billion—ranking in the top 20 globally and #1 by freight value of all airports in the Americas."
Cargo pilot Ken Hoke wrote in 2013 that cargo airlines have higher profit margins than passenger airlines.
That market does have a ceiling of both logistics and cost. Sending your cargo on an airplane costs astronomically more than putting it on a cargo ship and it's still four to five times times more expensive than putting it on a truck. The World Bank said in 2009 that this means what ends up on cargo planes must be either fresh premium goods or special cases.
"Commodities shipped by air thus have high values per unit or are very time-sensitive, such as documents, pharmaceuticals, fashion garments, production samples, electronics consumer goods, and perishable agricultural and seafood products," the The World Bank explains.
The extreme cost of sending a few items this way is balanced by the low cost of the huge batch on a ship. Because most of the cargo that’s worth the high cost of air shipping is already timely, the empty passenger planes brought into the fleet right now can slot in easily to carry a mix of these typical items and items deemed critical, like medical equipment.
These planes can also help to carry mail. While dedicated airmail began 150 years ago, flights for both cargo and passengers became more plentiful and the postal service threw envelopes and parcels onto cross-country flights. In the mid 1970s, airborne mail converged with first class mail and made the airmail classification obsolete within the U.S.
In 2007, international airmail followed, and today your passenger flights probably all have bags of mail in the cargo belly.
Can airliners really make effective cargo planes?
"Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus build passenger and cargo versions of their popular models," Hoke explains. "Another source of cargo jets are older passenger jets that have been converted into freighters in an extensive overhaul process. These jets are as good as new when they are ready for cargo service."
In other words, the outsides are usually the same, while the insides are outfitted in different ways in order to better serve cargo.
But the difference between a passenger plane and a cargo plane is like the difference between a house and a shed. Passenger planes have insulation and interior structures whereas cargo planes don’t need to look a certain way inside or be insulated—except enough to prevent damage to cargo. Live cargo is usually kept in heated areas.
This week, American Airlines flew coronavirus tests on a regular, non-cargo narrowbody plane — a classification that includes any airliner with just one aisle and six seats across, like a Boeing 737. This kind of soft cargo is easy to put into the regular cargo hold on a passenger plane.
"One fully loaded aircraft can represent thousands of customers whose iPhones, Droids, flowers, medical supplies, lobsters, and who-knows-what-else are guaranteed to be delivered on-time," Hoke said.
Stripped down cargo planes — often with crews of just two pilots and no one else — already operate as a well-oiled machine. Without passengers or luggage in the way, filling the cargo holds of passenger planes might be the simplest process of all.