How Passenger Aircraft Differ From Freighters

Airbus and Boeing both produce commercial passenger aircraft and cargo freighter planes. They are nearly always built on the same production line, but what are the main differences between the types? And can one become the other? Let’s explore.

Boeing 747 cargo aircraft takes flight. Photo: Getty Images

Different roles mean a different design

When it comes to building aircraft, aerospace manufactures have the end-use in mind. Thus some aircraft are built entirely differently to others, with features that would be at odds with the purpose of the other.

Thus these two types of planes can be different, even though many are on the same airframe platform.

Key features of cargo aircraft

It is easier to discuss how passenger aircraft different from freighter aircraft by listing the many features only available for one type.

For one, cargo aircraft have much bigger doors. They start from larger cargo doors found just aft of the front passenger doors (where you would find a business class on a plane), with another two at the rear of the plane. This allows cargo to be loaded on pallets and then turned 90 degrees before moving to the tail.

If a plane only used the regular doors, then the pallets would have to be disassembled and passed through by hand, taking hours to load a plane (and one of the issues that airline currently face loading passenger planes with emergency cargo).

Some cargo aircraft take this a step further with a nose (or tail) door that opens wide. Airlines can load cargo into the plane without having to make that 90 degrees turn at the door – a benefit for long items that can’t be bent.

Naturally, cargo aircraft have no seats onboard (apart from ones used by the crew) and also have fewer toilets onboard (especially all the rear ones) as they are unnecessary.

COVID-19 Vaccine cargo
The cargo 747 can open its nose to be loaded directly. Photo: Getty Images

What about range?

Interestingly, cargo aircraft have far less range than their passenger equivalents. That’s because, on the whole, the plane ends up carrying far more weight per volume than one used in airline service. A box full of metal components might take up more room than a row of passengers and weight ten times as much.

Typically these ranges are around half that of a passenger plane, although when the cargo plane is unloaded and empty, the range increases beyond that of the commercial jetliner. This is because not only is there no cargo, but there are no empty seats, toilets, entertainment systems – just an empty plane!

How Passenger Aircraft Differ From Freighters
A passenger plane can function as a cargo plane, although it is not efficient. Photo: Getty Images

Converting a passenger aircraft

Some firms have converted passenger aircraft into cargo planes, such as the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767. These aircraft have had their seats removed, cargo rails installed and a new cargo door fitted. You can learn about this process here. 

Nearly every plane can be turned into its cargo equivalent, although they don’t match up precisely with one built from scratch. For example, the 747 BCF looks the same as a 747 freighter, although it does not have a nose door as it would be far too expensive to install.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.