Airlines are facing complicated questions about where the aviation industry now finds itself. Still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, the need for the right answers is urgent.
Some have already started pivoting their business model, reassessing the purpose and size of their fleets, and responding quickly to minimise the impact on their organisation.
One solution, adopted at the start of the pandemic was to counter restricted and reduced travel by transporting cargo in the passenger cabin. Delta Air Lines flew out of 13 American airports to 70 destinations overseas operated by its cargo arm, moving packages and pallets instead of people. Whilst others such as Korean Air, Ethiopian Airlines and Etihad Airways took similar steps to accommodate the spike in airfreight demand.
The compelling benefits of freight conversion are likely to last long term. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects air cargo to return to pre-pandemic levels as early as 2021, with growth expected from this base. For comparison, the trade association predicts that passenger flights on domestic and regional routes will only recover back to 2019 traffic levels by 2023-24.
The pandemic has increased the global appetite for e-commerce delivery services, making cargo conversions the smart choice for airlines.
Short term conversions
Cargo conversions were a quick fix to help airlines combat some of their losses in 2020. Passenger airlines repurposed their aircraft to welcome a more consistent cash flow.
Asian airlines, in particular, performed outstandingly. As early as March, they quickly implemented tactics learned during the SARS epidemic. Freighters at Air China, China Airlines and Korean Air surpassed their annual cargo records while China Southern’s freighters flew up to 15.5 hours a day last year.
Eager to benefit from these gains too, Air Canada and Air New Zealand began temporarily transforming their aircraft. Pre-pandemic, both airlines did not have freight aircraft in their fleet so removed economy class seats from their passenger airlines to create cargo airlift.
Other airlines, such as Lufthansa, have also repurposed passenger aircraft to expand their already existing freight capacity.
While these conversions have helped airlines respond with agility to the current demands, the recovery and growth experienced as a result of cargo conversion trends is only a sign of what the future of aviation holds. There is a definite shift to e-commerce delivery with customers moving from brick and mortar facilities to online shopping now accelerated by lockdown during the pandemic. Air cargo stands to benefit and grow as a result.
Long term conversion plans
As we pass the first anniversary since the COVID-19 outbreak first affected air travel, airlines must look beyond the immediate solutions and assess which strategies will ensure success in the long haul.
Based on this success, some airlines are ordering more cargo-compatible models to take advantage of current conditions. Even technology giant Amazon recently purchased, rather than leased, 11 used widebody aircraft to expand its air cargo operation.
Finnair, for example, modified two Airbus A330 widebody aircraft for cargo use. The airline removed economy class seats and entertainment system power cords and replaced them with nets for safely attaching the cargo. The conversion process took the team fewer than two days from start to end.
In a more permanent move, DHL Express launched a passenger to freight conversion, purchasing a fleet of A330s to service the fast-growing markets of Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong with 33% more freight capacity per flight. Post conversion, A330-300s feature reinforcements to its fuselage, floor structure and door frame shell, newly-installed safety barrier nets and a powered cargo loading system.
Converting to cargo successfully
The rise in digital commerce and the collapse of belly cargo volumes on passenger routes are fuelling dedicated freight demand and its appeal is unlikely to disappear any time in the near future. The A330, in particular, can help operators be agile in their response to the current and future market conditions, allowing them to bring profitability back into their business.
Used A330s are an efficient option, offering both capacity and range. Their commonality with the A320 family and newer A350s allow for cross-crew qualification, while also making engineering and spares more readily available. With current low fuel costs, high aircraft availability and lower direct operating costs, the A330 is a proven solution for carriers looking for an opportunity to grow and innovate.
For more information on why the A330 is a compelling choice for cargo operations, explore the Destination Next whitepaper.