Instead of the quick rebound everyone was hoping for, air travel passenger demand remains at excruciatingly low levels. However, the rise in cargo demand brought on as a result of COVID-related travel restrictions shows no sign of abating. In September, American Airlines will operate over 1,000 cargo-only widebody flights to 32 destinations across the US, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Operations have come a long way since March
American Airlines is bracing itself for a prolonged period of stunted long-haul passenger demand. The airline is instead recruiting more of its widebodies for cargo-only efforts as it ramps up its freight operations. What started as an extracurricular side-hustle is turning into a business in its own right, as the carrier plans to operate over 1,000 cargo-only flights in September.
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American only returned to cargo-only operations in March as a way of earning some cash while the pandemic decimated passenger traffic. Now, it will double its cargo-capacity from August, as the idea that began as a test-flight to Frankfurt five months ago continues to grow.
Cargo is usually a tiny part of the business for US commercial carriers. In 2019, cargo accounted for only 2% of American Airlines’ total revenue. However, as passenger traffic dropped by up to 90% in April, even airlines that had previously never flown cargo decided to get into the game. In the second quarter of 2020, cargo accounted for $130 million of American’s revenue, out of a total of $1.62 billion.
32 destinations with Dreamliners and 777s
When American re-launched cargo-only services after a 35-year hiatus, it operated 20 flights from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to two cities – Frankfurt and Hong Kong. A few weeks later, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul-Incheon were added to the schedule.
“We didn’t have a playbook. We’d never done this before,” said Maulin Vakil, American’s Director of Cargo Customer Care in a statement seen by Simple Flying.
In September, the carrier will fly not only from DFW, but also from LAX, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, and New York’s JFK to Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Asia, and Australia. In total, the network will consist of 32 destinations.
All of the cargo-only flights will be operated by American’s widebody fleet. In lieu of passengers, its 787-8 Dreamliners, 777-200s and 777-300s will be ferrying supplies.
No cabin modifications
What American has not done, in comparison to many of its colleagues dabbling in the freighter business, is to have its passenger jets reconfigured. Meaning, no changes have been made to the cabins. No seats have been taken out to make room for pallets, nor is the airline strapping cargo to them. For American, so far, cargo remains a belly-only affair.
Obviously, cargo is not a long-term savior for a commercial passenger airline. However, with the industry settling in for a prolonged crisis and a slow recovery, and with a second round of CARES funding still uncertain, every little bit of revenue will be crucial towards making ends meet.