Jumping on the “preighter” (passenger aircraft used as temporary freighter) trend, Alaska Airlines has flown its first Boeing 737 flight carrying cargo in the cabin. Coming just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the airline is gearing up to fly tens of thousands of pounds of cargo and mail heading into the winter holidays.
Alaska’s first 737 flight with cargo in the passenger cabin
The week before the busy Thanksgiving holiday, Alaska Airlines flew its first flight with cargo where there should have been passengers. The airline, which is no stranger to cargo flights, spent months planning cargo-only flights to help move essential goods and mail around amid the ongoing crisis. Earlier this year, the airline flew over 12,000 iPads to Seattle for students who are learning virtually.
Approved by the FAA, Alaska Airlines can use all the space on the main deck for cargo. This includes the seats and overhead bins. Packages carrying mail, medical equipment, general supplies, and others can easily fit in many of these locations.
HAECO, an independent aircraft engineering and maintenance group, worked with Alaska Airlines to make the carrier the launch customer for this passenger to cargo conversion. Torque Zubeck, managing director of cargo, stated the following:
“Our teams have been working since the pandemic hit to identify the safest and most effective processes to increase our cargo capacity. HAECO’s design will allow us to maximize the available space, increase our cargo capacity and protect the supply chain by connecting critical cargo to the communities we serve during this public health crisis.”
Currently, Alaska Airlines is using one Boeing 737-900 with the in-seat cargo solution. The plane will continue to fly in the state of Alaska, where the carrier also recently debuted Embraer regional jets. In addition to this aircraft, there are three dedicated cargo aircraft that also fly for Alaska Airlines.
The airline notes that it could fly an additional 100,000 pounds of e-commerce into Southeast Alaska with the extra capacity. The airline is hopeful it can expand its program to additional aircraft.
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How Alaska Airlines pulled it off
The airline’s maintenance team has to take about six to eight hours to install cargo container bags in the passenger rows. Each bag can only carry up to 110 kilograms of mail. However, this enables the aircraft to fly an additional 13,500 pounds of cargo on top of what can be carried in the aircraft’s hold. The bags can be held in place with existing passenger seatbelts.
Like other airlines, Alaska Airlines has to fly this aircraft with crew in the cabin. Along with the two pilots, cargo load agents sit in the jumpseats during the flight. These crew provide oversight of loading, ensure proper tagging, and ensure the integrity of the cargo by ensuring the packages are secure in the system. Their role, however, is also related to a much more serious safety issue. In case of a fire, the cargo load agents provide fire suppression.
The nature of these flights… and the issues
Alaska Airlines has a significantly reduced flight schedule, which means it has more aircraft than necessary to conduct passenger operations. So, like other airlines, it is turning to cargo-only solutions. This is a way for the carrier to earn additional revenue while also helping keep global supply chains moving, which came under duress after passenger flights were drastically reduced. Cargo airlines are also working as hard as they can to make up for the shortfall.
However, these flights are not direct substitutes for true cargo aircraft operations. First and foremost, since these are not combi aircraft that fly both passengers and cargo, all pieces of freight have to be loaded through the passenger door by hand.
This means that all the cargo flying onboard has to be in small packages and relatively lightweight. This means only smaller pieces of cargo, such as e-commerce packages and mail, work well. Heavier and larger freight still needs to fly in the cargo hold. Still, this is better than nothing and will help keep goods flowing to communities that need it.
Are you glad to see Alaska Airlines fly its first cargo-only flight with freight in the cabin? Let us know in the comments!