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  Coronavirus Response

Published on: April 27, 2020, 9:26 p.m.
Airlines convert passenger planes to deliver essential supplies as cargo
  • Essential goods strapped on to Spicejet's passenger seats for urgent delivery

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

esperate times, desperate measures.” Ethan Hunt (portrayed by global superstar Tom Cruise) in Hollywood blockbuster Mission Impossible uses this adage to underline what it takes to deal with an extraordinary and adverse situation.

The aviation business, it would seem, is learning fast. With passenger aircraft being turned into cargo planes to service demand, especially for medical supplies, that has hit the roof.

According to an IATA (International Air Transport Association) estimate, airlines across the globe may incur losses of over $250 billion this year. And recovery from business disruption may take up to two years.

Converting a small part of their passenger fleet into cargo planes is unlikely to compensate for a large part of losses, but it is an opportunity to run aircraft commercially in desperate times, instead of having them stand idle at the airport.

Carriers like American, Delta, Lufthansa, and Air Canada have taken the lead in re-configuring passenger fleet to carry cargo.  IATA has also issued specific guidelines to airlines, stating safety standards and measures to be taken when cargo is ferried in passenger cabins, with warnings against the transport of dangerous goods or live animals in cabins.

"It is critical for governments to remove any blockers as the industry is doing all it can to keep the global air cargo network functioning in the crisis," said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's Director General and CEO.

Indian carriers like SpiceJet too are emulating such global examples. Away from the public gaze, other carriers like Air India, Indigo, and freight specialist Blue Dart have intensified regular cargo services.

Early this month, SpiceJet operated a cargo-on-seat flight carrying 11 tonnes of essential supplies in the passenger cabin between Delhi and Chennai. On the same day, the Boeing 737 NG passenger aircraft which was solely used for cargo transportation operated on three more routes - Chennai to Surat, Surat to Chennai, and Chennai to Mumbai.

SpiceJet conducted this double-act after seeking required approvals from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Ministry of Civil Aviation. SpiceJet is incidentally the only scheduled carrier in the country which operates a dedicated freight business with the brand name SpiceXpress.

“Today for the first time in the country, we used a passenger aircraft to transport cargo where in addition to the belly space the passenger cabin was used to safely carry essential supplies,” airline’s chairman Ajay Singh commented.

Explaining the operational tweaking to convert a passenger plane to a complete cargo carrier, the airline maintained that “special seat covers made from flame-proof material were used to cover the seats and the cargo on the seat was secured with restraints.” Furthermore, to ensure optimum utilisation of space, the overhead bins were also used.

“Using passenger aircraft to ferry cargo has happened in the past too, but mainly by the national carrier. Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for such initiatives. When most other means of transportation are in a disarray, air cargo offers a controlled environment to deliver goods,” says Harsh Vardhan, Former CEO, Vayudoot, and an aviation expert.

According to official freight data, air cargo traffic has expanded manifold over the past month.

SpiceJet with its dedicated fleet of five freighters has operated 579 cargo flights (208 international) carrying 4,246 tonnes of cargo. Blue Dart with 207 cargo flights has ferried 3,399 tons in the same period (nine international flights) while  Indigo operated 48 cargo flights (15 international) during 3-25 April carrying around 167 tons of cargo.

“In the international sector, a cargo air-bridge was established with East Asia for transportation of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and Covid-19 relief material. The quantity of medical cargo brought in by Air India is 554 tonnes till 25 April 2020,” a Civil Aviation Ministry release specified.

The moot question now is: in these desperate times, are the airlines looking at hauling cargo to survive? It could be a means to stay afloat in choppy waters. "A passenger carrier with cargo in its belly space can only result in small gains. This is an ancillary earning source in regular times,” Vardhan commented. 

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