Unfamiliar to the designers of Boeing 777s, these aircraft are going through a structural change that puts cargo, not the passenger, at the centre of their purpose and glory. Responding to the dystopian state of affairs brought by the virus crisis, these majestic passenger jets are being stripped off of their passenger seats for cargo, since the prospects of them serving the passengers grow slimmer by the day, as SARS-CoV-2 continues to tighten its grip around the world.

The year 2020 has put a halo on the air cargo community for acting as a cushion for the troubled aviation industry and for the crucial role air cargo continues to play in transporting critical and time-sensitive supplies around the world. The demand for air cargo is seeing a spike of its lifetime, but due to the grounding of passenger jets, the cargo belly capacity on these grounded aircraft has been compromised. According to The International Air Transport Association (IATA), this has withered the air cargo capacity by 22.7 percent, creating a serious supply and demand imbalance, interrupting the needed flow of vital supplies.   

“We don’t have enough capacity to meet the remaining demand for air cargo. Volumes fell by over 15 percent in March compared to the previous year. But capacity plummeted by almost 23 percent,” said IATA’s CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, on the rising concern of capacity crunch.

The first big response
Cargo climbed the passengers seats as soon as the blow of capacity crunch against the growing demand was felt. The aircraft manufacturers and regulatory authorities quickly accommodated this response and issued guidelines and new regulatory requirements. However, how lucrative is this response of moving cargo onto the passenger seats?

To begin with, this unconventional arrangement has longterm limitations. The cargo on the seat has weight restriction, need unique and labour intensive strapping requirements and, most important of all, need homogeneous packaging, unlike what goes in the belly of the aircraft. While new methods of accommodating cargo on the passenger seats are coming to the fore like cargo seat bags that suit the ergonomic seats, the new approach to accommodate cargo runs a possibility of causing damages to the passenger seats and the cabin, adding cost to the airline.

The second big response
While many airlines quickly joined the cargo-on-seat club, some held back to think of wilder ways to carry cargo and meet the growing demand. Recently, Air Canada and Swiss WorldCargo announced successful reconfiguration of their three Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft each. The reconfiguration involved disassembling all economy class seats and clearing the cabin for cargo hold. 

Such remodelling of Boeing 777-300ER opens up volume of about 150 cubic meters (m3) in the cabin. Adding this volume to the existing belly capacity, which typically also stands at 150 m3, the overall cargo carrying capacity of the aircraft is doubled. And this capacity excludes the boxes that go into the overhead bins of the cabin. 

As per the set guidelines shared by the aircraft manufacturer, the belly hold can support cargo weight of 68kg per sq ft. And since the cabin deck is relatively extra reinforced, the cargo weight the main deck can support is 13 percent extra, standing at 77kg per sq ft.

Comparing the two routes, cargo-in-cabin and remodlling aircraft for cargo, Alexander Arafa, who is the head of cargo global area at Swiss WorldCargo, explained “Adding cargo in the cabin guarantees us an additional capacity of 6 or more tonnes of cargo. We use this on our flights carrying humanitarian goods in order to ensure that we can quickly carry important medical goods to and from Switzerland. Further enhancing our cargo capacity through the removal of seats is a technical process. It is a step further than just carrying cargo on our seats, and thus also offers even more additional capacity.”

Optimising the cabin deck for cargo remains a subject of scrutiny, but, for now, considering the novel nature of such an arrangement “It also requires additional focuses on proper storage and adherence to safety regulations.” Arafa added. 

The guidelines by the aircraft manufacturer inform maximum cargo hold capacity for the cabin, but that could be manipulated and exceeded by strapping the tall cargo stacks to the floor of the passanger cabin. Tim Strauss, who is the VP, Cargo with Air Canada explained that “The stacking extends to unusual heights followed by strapping of this unusual cargo. All this needs to be done safely.” 

Loading and unloading cargo in the cabin are clearly a tedious and labour intensive tasks, which may add unavailingly to the increased ground time. However, Air Canada is effectively mitigating the challenge by automating as many processes as possible. “Offloading takes about hour and fifteen minutes, and loading takes about hour and forty-five minutes.” said Strauss.

Remodelling aircraft for cargo, at this stage, does not make provision for the cargo to enter the cabin through a large door, hence the boxes inter the aircraft through passenger doors. On circumventing this challenge, Strauss suggested that “mix of cargo, with large equipments entering the belly and small cargo entering the main deck, a very good freighter can be fixed.” 

On the future of remodelling aircraft, Arafa opined that “once the passenger market resumes again, the air cargo market, specifically for belly carriers, will adjust back as well.”

For now, these remodelled aircraft are here to serve the supply chain, and the strategy seems to be contagious as other airlines are following suit. Air Canada is getting more B777s enrolled for remodelling, and Ethiopian Airlines, Jazz Aviation, China Eastern, and LATAM Cargo have already started reconfiguring a few of their passenger jets that will start servicing the air cargo capacity crunch soon.

This feature was originally published in May 2020 issue of The STAT Trade Times.