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What started out a month ago as a niche, experimental business — turning passenger aircraft into dedicated freighters for cargo customers — has exploded in popularity and become a driver of sorely needed revenue for airlines while supplying the world with critical goods.

In just three weeks, United Airlines has already operated 270 cargo-only flights carrying more than 9.2 million pounds on repurposed Boeing 777 and 787 jets, cargo chief Jan Krems said. Initial service was between United’s U.S. hubs and Amsterdam; Frankfurt, Germany; and London’s Heathrow Airport. Since then, United Cargo has added Brussels, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney and Tel Aviv, Israel, to its all-cargo network. And later this week it will begin service to and from Chengdu, China; Beijing; and Taiwan.

Beginning today, Lufthansa and its sister Austrian Airlines will add 35 weekly flights with passenger aircraft operating between Europe and Asia. The schedule includes two daily connections from Frankfurt to Shanghai and one daily connection to Beijing with Airbus A330-300 aircraft. One Airbus A350-900 will take off daily from Munich to Shanghai and Beijing. The planes have about 30 tons of cargo capacity. Austrian Airlines plans to provide 16 flights a week from Vienna, with Shanghai being served eight times per week, Beijing five times, Penang, Malaysia two times and Xiamen, China, once a week. The airline will deploy Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 jets on those routes.

American Airlines announced Friday that it is expanding cargo-only operations as well. American flew a couple flights in late March between Dallas-Fort Worth and Frankfurt. Within a week, the Dallas-based carrier will begin operating mini-freighters from DFW to Dublin and Hong Kong; between New York (JFK) and London Heathrow; and between Miami and Buenos Aires. American said it is also planning to add cargo-only service to Shanghai and Seoul by the end of the month.

The airlines continued to become more creative with cargo. Some, like Delta Air Lines, added scheduled cargo service on certain routes to supplement capacity. Lufthansa, China Eastern and others filled passenger seats with boxes to maximize efficiency. Light goods, such as protective masks, are typically carried in the upper deck. Others are using special “seat bags” that modify the seat space and allow more cargo to be safely loaded. Southwest Airlines is renting planes to cargo users even though its fleet consists of narrow-body Boeing 737s that can’t fit giant containers or flat racks. And Air Canada is even offering its small, regional jets to get cargo to rural areas and tribal communities.

Etihad Airways is another carrier substituting passenger planes for cargo applications. It is adding five routes to the original 10 destinations served by 777 and 787 passenger aircraft in cargo-only mode. The new services connect Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, with Melbourne, Australia; Chennai and Kerala, India; Karachi, Pakistan; and Amsterdam, the company said.

The demand for these services reflects the importance of air transport to move emergency aid, food products, e-commerce and other items to keep businesses running during a pandemic crisis in which hospitals are stressed and millions of people are quarantined at home.

Source: Freightwaves