FAA extends ‘passenger freighters’ run till end of 2021

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In a welcome move for the air cargo industry, earlier this month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extended the exemption for air carriers to carry cargo in the main cabin and on passenger seats when no passengers are being transported, until December 31, 2021. 

Exemptions to allow ‘passenger freighter aircraft’ also called ‘preighters’ to carry cargo in the cabin were made both by the FAA and EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) when the pandemic struck, with an expiry on July 10. EASA has already given a similar extension to air carriers to carry cargo in passenger cabins of passenger aircrafts until the end of 2021.

As the aviation industry experienced significant and continued downturns in passenger traffic due to travel restrictions on passenger movement following the pandemic outbreak last year, this move is expected to give a fillip to ‘cargo lift capabilities’ of several air carriers globally. While passenger-carrying flights routinely carry cargo in their lower decks, the steep decline in passenger carrying flights owing to the Covid-19 led to reduced available air freight capacity. Even with the passenger air travel having increased marginally from last year, it is yet to recover air freight capacity to pre-pandemic levels owing to its dependence on passenger airplanes. 

This move came after Airlines for America (A4A) had petitioned to the FAA for a year’s extension and also received support from the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) for the same. In its petition, A4A had cited that this optimization of the volume of cargo via the passenger freighters route can help alleviate the overall supply chain capacity constraints faced by air carrier globally post the pandemic. This development is said to impact the fortunes of more than ten member airlines of the A4A and signal a similar move from civil aviation regulators from other countries as well.

According to Cargo Facts Consulting, as of June 2021, close to 1461 preighters had been operated by four airlines till the third week of June. Of these, the bulk of passenger-freighter flights was operated by Qatar Airways 28 per cent, followed by American Airlines 18 per cent, Air Canada 15 per cent and United 10 per cent.

While some carriers made heavy usage of preighters, several others are ending the dream run of the ‘preighters’, thanks to passenger aircrafts coming back in use with many countries opening up passenger air travel this year.

Air carriers aver that operating preighters brings with it many challenges including being a ‘highly labour-intensive’ operation, needing longer loading times that puts pressure on operations and resources and finally adding congestion to the airports. This has led to many airlines scaling back on operating ‘preighters’. Many like Austrian Airlines reportedly have ended their full-cargo operations and restored their passenger seats, which had incidentally added 35 per cent cargo capacity to the aircraft.

While the A4A had requested the FAA for an additional one year extension for the exemption, the EASA is also reportedly mulling the need for further extension beyond the end of 2021 and analysing this from a ‘safety perspective’.

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