Air passenger traffic has virtually vanished, prompting airlines to slash their schedules. But cargo still needs to move by air.
So the Federal Aviation Administration says airlines may remove the seats from passenger aircraft and turn them into freighters.
The regulator laid out how the carriers could use “seat tracks to tie cargo down,” stow smaller pieces in overhead bins, and possibly strap containers behind bulkheads.
Airlines would need to properly balance the weight on the aircraft and develop fire prevention plans, because passenger compartments don’t have the specialized smoke detection systems used on freighters. One workaround: Stationing a single crew member to monitor for potential fires.
The agency called it “an extraordinary situation … for an entire passenger cabin to be loaded with cargo.”
Passenger aircraft bellies are already an essential link in the supply chain. But that capacity has dwindled as airlines slash their usual schedules. Repurposing the passenger aircraft fleet is another way to expand capacity for critical medical supplies. And rising air cargo prices offer struggling airlines a lifeline.
Some U.S. carriers are already hauling cargo in their bellies with the passenger compartment empty. In mid-March, American Airlines flew its first cargo-only flight since 1984. United added cargo-only routes this week, Southwest is offering its aircraft for cargo charters, and Delta is also operating cargo-only planes.