Airlines around the world removed the seats from their passenger planes to make more room for cargo. Through the past several months more than 130 aircraft temporarily converted to freighters to keep flying and pulling in revenue, especially critical given the alternative of parking the aircraft. Notably absent from the 40ish airlines that made the move: US carriers. FAA regulations prohibited such a conversion, mostly for fire-safety reasons. But with new rules in place the US carriers are poised to move on this opportunity.
In May 2020 the FAA ruled that airlines could begin to carry cargo in the cabin, though the seats must remain. Airlines would be required to secure boxes into the seats and staff crew in the cabin to monitor the cargo for any shifting or fire hazard potential. But the option became available. Earlier this month a further ruling was issued, allowing for seats to be removed and more cargo to be carried. The FAA is not quite as lenient as some other national regulators with respect to the amount of cargo and its positioning in the cabin, but the opportunity to carry more is potentially good news for passenger airlines looking to increase the profitability of their cargo-only flights.
Delta Air Lines is among the operators pursuing this opportunity. The carrier formally notified the FAA of its intentions to operate under the exemption allowing it to place cargo on seats. That application was still under review by the FAA as of earlier this month. Increasing the cargo carried on the 50ish flights Delta operates each month could prove a nice supplement to the carrier’s revenue stream. Silver Airways also intends to fly cargo in the seats on some of its turbo-prop aircraft. National Airlines and Omni Air International also submitted applications to the FAA for this option.
For the airlines that want to go for an all-cargo layout, removing the seats for even more capacity, they’ll need help beyond just the FAA allowance. Delta Engineering (not related to the airline) is among the companies working to support those efforts. The company applied for Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) exemptions “for multiple airplane models from multiple airplane manufacturers.”
The type design change would allow the airplane operators to remove passenger seats to transport cargo, subject to the FAA’s conditions, on the floor of the main deck of transport category airplanes without revenue passengers onboard… Due to extreme reduction in demand, passenger carriers now have the capacity to carry cargo, including critical medical cargo, in-cabin. The relief that would be provided by this exemption would also support the need to replace the cargo capacity provided on airplanes normally flown by passenger carriers.
And Delta Engineering intends to make sure that nearly every passenger aircraft in the US market can be converted using its services. The filing covers nearly every passenger aircraft type flying today, including those not operated by US carriers.
Success on this cargo path requires a number of factors to come together across the industry. Cargo demand remains soft, down 17.6% YoY in June, a small improvement from the 20.1% drop in May. Total capacity is down 34%, including the 70% belly cargo capacity lost as airlines grounded their fleets. These cargo-only flights are a tiny means to restore some of that capacity. Moreover, IATA Director General & CEO Aleandre de Juniac notes, “The rush to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to market has subsided as supply chains regularized, enabling shippers to use cheaper sea and rail options.”
For the US carriers the demand dropped less than in other parts of the world, supporting the efforts of airlines and engineering partners to convert the aircraft even now. International capacity for the US cargo market decreased 30.7% YoY in June. These “fake freighters” could offset that nicely.
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