… and commemorate the occasion with a special livery. 26FEB21 marked the 100th freighter flight jointly carried out by the two companies, this time to bring back 39 tons of latex gloves from Penang, Malaysia. CargoForwarder Global was invited to Vienna Airport, to view the freshly decorated B777-200, registration OE-LPA, otherwise fondly referred to as Papa Alpha.
Bearing the words “Celebrating 100 Special Speed Logistics Pax-Freighter Operations” beneath the time:matters logo, the Austrian Airlines plane has been a true workhorse not just during the pandemic, but within the company, too, as it is the B777 with the most flight rotations, according to Austrian Airlines CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech. The aircraft originally flew for LaudaAir from 1997 on, receiving its Austrian Airlines livery in 2005, and, for a while, bore the name “Sound of Music”.
Preighters and freight
These days, it is the “Sound of Cargo” that brings some relief to the otherwise cash-strapped passenger airline. Having deployed passenger aircraft to carry cargo very early on in the pandemic, the joint decision between Austrian Airlines and time:matters to convert a couple of B777s to augment their cargo capacity, led to the birth of the Lufthansa Group’s first preighters – alias “passenger freighters”. Originally, back in APR20, OE-LPC (Papa Charlie) was the first to have all its economy seats removed, entering service at the end of APR20, with Papa Alpha following hard on its heels in early MAY20. In the first couple of months of the pandemic, 50 cargo-only passenger flights were carried out, totalling around 770 tons by 28APR20. Following the initial pandemic peak period, demand for PPE reduced a little over the summer, leading to Papa Charlie being converted back into a full passenger aircraft, and leaving Papa Alpha as a solo preighter. Demand for PPE resurfaced again in OCT20 and especially pre-Christmas, as stricter lockdowns loomed once more. To date, more than 2000 tons have been shifted via preighter, mainly from China (Shanghai and Xiamen mostly, plus a small amount from Beijing), as well as Malaysia (Penang being a rubber-producing city and thus a main latex gloves source.) Originally, the cargo had very varied end destinations: Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, for example, but these days it is generally headed to the DACH region – mostly Germany and Austria, sometimes Switzerland, too. What started out as shipments ordered by different governmental bodies, soon moved to private enterprises better acquainted with air freight transportation, and who now make up around 90% of the cargo requests.
Easy freight, but difficult procedures
Preighters are perfect for PPE, since it is usually light and in small boxes. Taking out seats and preparing the aircraft to fly as a preighter, is also pretty straight forward. Getting the authorization from the various governing bodies, such as EASA, is less simple. Originally, the Austrian preighters were authorised by EASA to fly from MAR20-DEC20. That authorization has now been extended to the end of the second quarter 2021, with Austrian Airlines intending to seek long-term approval. “As long as there is demand, we will keep flying,” Alexis von Hoensbroech states, also in response to CFG’s question whether Papa Charlie might be converted back into a preighter again. Due to Chinese New Year, cargo demand is currently a little quiet, but he is certain there will be ongoing need for the preighter again soon. In addition to the approval, other regulations differing from normal freighter operations, need adhering to: such as the deployment of flight attendants in the cabin, if cargo is loaded there. They are required to carry out cargo inspections every 15 minutes as a fire precaution and are dispatched from Austria to return with the cargo, given the ad hoc nature of the flight.
Schedules, changes, challenges
Agility and flexibility are two skills every company has had to develop during the pandemic. Country regulations chop and change, passenger demand ebbs and grows, cargo capacities are constrained – all this leads to a very dynamic environment. “We are happy about every single flight”, Alexis von Hoensbroech states, especially with regard to cargo which in many cases is paying for the 15%-20% flight operations currently happening, with just 12% of the normal passenger figures; especially since rates for cargo on board preighter flights are much higher than normal. Austrian will swap aircraft types intended for certain destinations – such as replacing an A320 with a B767 at short notice if cargo demand is there. Around 30%-40% of the fleet is currently being rotated, and cargo flights help to keep pilots in regular action, too. Over at time:matters, the number of grounded flights in general makes life very difficult. “We depend on a dense network of flights to ensure our same-day operations, yet with such reduced flight schedules, it takes us 4-5 times longer to establish necessary connections for our shipments,” Alexander Kohnen explains. On top of that, the increased use of passenger A320/321 neos with greater passenger capacities, or the deployment of even smaller aircraft, mean that cargo capacities continue to be very restricted. His prediction for the future, is that there will be an increase in P2F conversions, and many of today’s preighters will continue to be deployed.
How much longer?
Will we see a 200th time:matters / Austrian Airlines preighter flight? Who knows? The million-dollar question, as von Hoensbroech puts it, is when flight operations will be somewhere near back to normal. His prediction, depending on the success of the vaccination programs, is that Summer 2021 should see around 60-70% of demand returning to the skies, and his hopes are that all countries and airlines will follow a coordinated approach with regard to passenger regulations.
Both Alexander Kohnen and Alexis von Hoensbroech closed the press event by expressing their pride and thanks to all the pilots, flight attendants, operations, cargo staff, technicians, and many others involved in the intense job of getting the 100 preighter flights into the air. With reference to the joint cooperation, Alexis von Hoensbroech said. "I am extremely pleased that we are able to do something good thanks to the strong partnership with time:matters, especially with its team of cargo experts in Vienna. On the basis of our joint airlift, we can contribute to halting the spread of the pandemic."
time:matters CEO Alexander Kohnen added: "We want to further intensify our cooperation with Austrian Airlines and are working to launch additional air cargo routes. I think it is fantastic to leverage this special occasion as the basis for expanding our collaboration and making further plans for the future."
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