austrian preighter
Austrian Airlines

Just four airlines now account for 72% of the ‘preighter’ market – which could shrink further as the FAA exemption allowing carriers to carry cargo in cabins expires on 10 July.

New data from Cargo Facts Consulting (CFC) shows that, in the third week of June, airlines operated 1,461 passenger-freighter flights and, of those, Qatar Airways operated 28%, American Airlines 18%, Air Canada 15% and United 10%.

Two-thirds of the flights were into the Americas, with European and Asian destinations accounting for just 34 flights each, according to CFC.

Despite the heavy usage by some carriers, others are scaling back the use of passenger aircraft.

Austrian Airlines said this week it had ended its full-cargo operations and was restoring the seats in its two 777s to carry passengers from July. Removing the seats had added 35% more cargo capacity to the aircraft.

Lufthansa Cargo, which runs Austrian’s cargo business, said it flew cargo-only passenger aircraft “only occasionally”, but added: “More and more passenger airline flights are coming back, whose belly capacity we can then use.”

Sister airline Swiss, however, still operates some passenger-freighters, with 10 flights in the third week of June, according to CFC.

With the traditional slack season under way, perhaps unexpected this year, freighter operators in particular look to be drawing back from passenger-freighters – with the exception of Qatar – while for others, their hands could be forced.

Exemptions to allow passenger aircraft to carry cargo in the cabin were made by both the FAA and EASA when the pandemic struck. The FAA deadline on the exemption expires on 10 July, but in March Airlines 4 America applied for a year’s extension and despite the looming deadline, no extension has yet been announced.

Perhaps surprisingly, the only carrier which has publicly supported a further extension is freighter operator National Airlines.

Fleet data, however, shows that National leased a passenger A330-200 in March last year – a pre-pandemic decision – and it also told the FAA it “intends and will continue to comply with the conditions and limitations expressed in the exemption”, indicating it has operated passenger cargo flights.

In Europe, EASA, which was said to be reluctant to allow cargo in cabins for safety reasons, originally allowed the exemption until the end of this year.

EASA told The Loadstar this morning it was “currently analysing the needs and the safety case for an extension”. It said: “We are working to determine whether such flexibility will indeed still be needed beyond the end of 2021 and whether this can be afforded from a safety perspective.”

Handlers at least won’t be sorry to see passenger-freighters leave the market. Wilson Kwong, CEO of Hong Kong’s HACTL, told The Loadstar they added to congestion at airports.

“The current passenger-freighter operations are very labour-intensive, requiring increased manpower. Loading times for these flights are greater, so we have to present cargo for loading five to six hours earlier than normal, which places considerable pressure on our operations and resources.”

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