Over the past weeks, many passenger airlines have successively grounded up to 95% of their fleet, keeping certain aircraft going mainly for repatriation flights in conjunction with national embassies. With the massive drop in belly capacity, cargo space is scarce, and thus increasingly, passenger airlines are providing some of their fleet as temporary cargo-only charters. What does this entail and what are the challenges?
According to Glyn Hughes in an online IATA press conference held on 26MAR20, something in the region of over 1 million passenger flights have been removed from the system until the end of JUN20 –
mainly on long-haul – on which around 45-50% of the world’s cargo is transported, thus ripping a huge hole in the world’s supply chain processes.
This has led not only to existing cargo carriers stalling the mothballing of older freighters, but also to an increasing number of freight forwarders setting up own charter operations, and – as shown by more and more photos and stories appearing in LinkedIn and other social media – passenger airlines have started operating cargo-only passenger flights, partly scheduled, mostly chartered.
How do I set up a cargo-only passenger charter?
CFG posed the question to Glyn Hughes, who pointed out that an aircraft without passengers is simply an aircraft which has gone through a certification process already. The carrier has the choice of operating the flight itself (and either simply use the lower-deck holds, or opt to utilize the seat space as well), or offering the aircraft for charter: “When they're available on the charter market, it means that there isn't a particular schedule that they're operating to.”
These charters are leased to one particular client for the transportation of equipment or aid, for example, or the airline goes through a charter broker “on behalf of a number of freight forwarders or shippers, who will be collectively aggregating some shipments, and then they will be utilizing the charted operation for multiple consignments from multiple shippers.”
The charter permit
So, the first step: apply for a charter permit. Under normal circumstances, charter permits are applied for a month or so in advance, and it is already known what kind of cargo will be flying from where to where. “When disaster occurs – earthquake, flood, famine… - charter permits have been issued immediately because it's humanitarian relief flying in. We've now got a hybrid situation here where it's global humanitarian relief sometimes bringing in food or medicine to help support people in isolation and quarantine. So, governments need to understand a large number of charter requests will be coming through, and that these should be expedited quickly. There are lives at risk.”
Rules and Regulations
“Security provisions still continue to apply all of the procedures, whether it’s customs, or cargo types, or country regulations. When you operate a charter, you then need to seek a specific permit to land in a given country. And if you are flying over other states, you then need to apply for overflow rights to make sure that cargo that you're carrying is not prohibited over another country's airspace.” Particularly when it comes to cargo types, this is where passenger airlines consult IATA, who advise them based on the aircraft’s hold functionalities, and whether “they have, for example, fire suppression systems and classifications temperature-controlled environments” enabling them to “transport certain pharmaceuticals that need to be temperature monitored throughout the flight or transport in certain condition.”
What are you trained in?
Those airlines with own freighters or cargo operations, naturally are at an advantage when it comes to cargo-only pax charters, as they generally have the handling systems in place within the network, for the specifics of specialized freight. “Each carrier is looking at its fleet, its capabilities, its handling capabilities, because of course, many of these airlines don't actually operate freighters, so they're not used to carrying large quantities of fully regulated dangerous goods.” Theoretically, the charter environment would allow these airlines to carry quantities of fully regulated dangerous goods, but most opt for general cargo only “because their handling systems are not designed to manage that type of cargo in a normal operational environment.”
It is safer to stick with what you are capable of handling. When it comes to handling cargo on the passenger deck, the airline needs to familiarize itself with the guidelines provided by the aircraft manufacturer, as to how best to secure loads to the seats.
Challenges on the ground?
The current COVID-19 limitations that many governments have imposed, can be barriers to fully utilizing networks. If the airport is only running to a limited schedule, if the handling staff on the ground are affected by curfews or lockdowns, if people are not around to operate required handling equipment or build up and break down in the warehouse, these are additional considerations that need taking into account when considering the charter network.
IATA, TIACA, ICAO and similar organizations are actively pushing governments and airports to facilitate the supply of urgent cargo. This also includes ensuring that crews operating cargo flights are exempt from quarantine measures and able to rest – or flights operate with double-crews, which add to costs and complexity.
The age of the cargo seat bag / box
Alongside the images of passenger decks covered in boxes, plastic and netting appearing in LinkedIn, are also a number of companies providing matching transport solutions called seat bags or seat boxes, made from reusable plastic or recycled cardboard. A crisis like the current one shows how flexible, agile, and innovative companies can be – and thanks to the age of digitalization, the information gets out fast and to a huge audience.
So, at the end of the day: have I got a charter permit? Have I decided what cargo type to allow? Do I have landing and overfly permission? Which of my aircraft types is best? Do I want to make use of the passenger deck and do I have the loading material and expertise for this? Do I have ground handling staff and equipment at origin and destination that is available and can cope with my cargo? Can I keep my flight crew safe and operational?
Safe cargo-only pax flight!
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