Eastern Airlines appears to be putting its all-cargo aircraft aspirations on the back-burner to refocus on passenger and belly operations, as it continues to await certification for its ‘E-class’ 777 conversions.

It has applied to the US Department of Transportation for a New York-Shanghai low-cost service with belly cargo to start as soon as possible.

Currently, seven Chinese carriers fly between China and the US, but only three US airlines, and the number of frequencies they can operate is restricted.

Eastern noted in its application: “Eastern’s service will also enhance existing air cargo capacity between the United States and China.”

Under current Covid restrictions, the flight would have to stop at Anchorage and Seoul, although Eastern said as restrictions eased, it could cut the Seoul stop, which is in place to ensure crews don’t need to overnight in China.

Currently, however, Eastern’s 777 aircraft have not yet gained ETOPs approval, and the carrier wants to “initially and temporarily operate the service using a 436-seat Airbus 330-300 aircraft, sub-serviced by another carrier. Eastern will transition to using its own B777 aircraft upon finalising FAA approvals necessary to operate that aircraft for this service.”

Delta, American and United did not oppose the application, but two of them requested a deferred decision and all three cast doubt on Eastern’s ability to navigate Chinese rules and restrictions.

Eastern hit the cargo headlines during the pandemic when it said it would semi-convert a 35-strong fleet of 777s to carry cargo only, but focusing on volume rather than weight, thus requiring fewer changes to the aircraft.

In February, Flexport signed up with the carrier, which owns an aviation engineering firm and aircraft trading company, as well as an MRO outfit. The forwarder was looking for a service from Ho Chi Minh and Hong Kong to Chicago. Flexport said at the time: “Customers shipping from South-east Asia to the US can use Flexport’s platform to determine which SKUs would benefit the most from this service and prioritise cargo allocation accordingly.”

However, the aircraft have been delayed, with the supplemental type certificate still in development. However, Eastern hope flight tests would begin by the end of the year. The delays relate to supply chain disruption that impacted delivery of parts, and also caution by an FAA sensitive after the 737 Max saga.

However, Eastern is thought to be staying positive, in the longer-term, about the idea despite the current weak market, as it will offer customers a cheaper way to move express and e-commerce cargo, with lower ramp costs among other benefits.

Eastern currently offers military charters and operates aircraft for the New England Patriots, but it clearly wants to diversify its passenger operations while it waits for its freighters.

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