Airlines use Passenger Planes for Cargo
Airlines use Passenger Planes for Cargo

In a global effort to transport essential supplies, airlines are turning their focus to cargo; a vital partner in delivering much-needed medicines and medical equipment, while keeping global supply chains open.

Passenger loads have virtually evaporated since the global spread of COVID-19, with over 185,000 flights cancelled since the end of January 2020.

Most passenger aircraft carry air cargo in the belly hold, directly underneath the passenger cabins. Lost passenger capacity is being utilised to transport cargo, which is playing a key role in fighting the pandemic.

IATA Support for Air Cargo

IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, is urging governments to exclude air cargo operations from COVID-19 related travel restrictions; he released a renewed plea on 25th March.

“Air cargo is a vital partner in the global fight against COVID-19. But we are still seeing examples of cargo flights filled with life-saving medical supplies and equipment grounded due to cumbersome and bureaucratic processes to secure slots and operating permits. These delays are endangering lives. All governments need to step up to keep global supply chains open,”

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO

Airlines are rising to the challenge, as can be seen from this FlightRadar24 snapshot taken on 25th March 2020.

a map of the world with airplanes flying
Many Boeing 747 Freighters are in the air. Source: FlightRadar24

Keeping Air Cargo Moving

Airlines are taking extraordinary measures to ensure the flow of vital goods by air. Examples include:

  • Delta, American and United have started cargo-only flights, using passenger aircraft domestically and internationally to bolster depressed global airfreight capacity
  • Air Canada, Aeromexico, Austrian, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Iberia, Korean, LATAM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Scoot, Swiss and many other carriers have made some passenger aircraft in their fleets available for chartered cargo operations
  • Ethiopian Airlines is playing a key role in transporting COVID-19 medical equipment through its hub to Africa’s 54 nations, including recently transporting equipment donated by the Jack Ma Foundation
  • Croatian Airlines has operated a charter flight from Abu Dhabi to Zagreb delivering critical medical equipment
  • China Eastern delivered a significant amount of medical supplies to support doctors in Italy
  • Austrian used 2 passenger B777 aircraft to fly medical equipment from China to Austria
  • Airlink, a nonprofit organisation working with aviation and logistics partners to transport relief workers and emergency supplies, have transported 16,127 lbs of medical supplies and food aid to help the COVID-19 relief effort
  • FedEx Express has helped the US government transport COVID-19 test specimens from more than 50 remote drive-thru testing centres, at major retailers across 12 states.
  • The UPS Foundation has expanded its relief response to Coronavirus, delivering urgent medical supplies, food and housing; also providing financial assistance to aid in recovery efforts
  • Airbus has transported 2 million face masks from China to Europe on a test A330-800 aircraft — the majority of which will be donated to Spain & France
a plane with stairs and people on it
Source: Ethiopian Airlines

World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises the importance of air cargo in the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19

“Around the world the frontline health workers who fight against COVID- 19 need to be continuously supplied with necessary medical equipment and protective material. We call on airline companies and governments to join the global effort to ensure dedicated freight capacity continues to operate on previously high volume passenger routes that are now closed down,”

Paul Molinaro, Chief, Operations Support and Logistics, WHO

Virgin Atlantic

On Saturday 21st March 2020, Virgin Atlantic operated their first ever cargo only flight across the Atlantic.

  • Flight VS698 flew from London Heathrow to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport
  • Operated by a Boeing 787-9
  • Carrying 12,490 kg of pharmaceutical and medical products

Dominic Kennedy, Managing Director Cargo, reflected on this first for the airline:

“I must say, standing out on the ramp at an eerily quiet Heathrow today really brought home to me the scale of what’s happening here – and added to my feeling of immense pride as I watched our inaugural cargo-only charter get airborne.”

Dominic Kennedy, Managing Director, Cargo

Cathay Pacific

Other airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, are well versed in transporting air cargo with a long-standing history in flying freight. With only a tiny number of passenger flights remaining, Cathay Pacific is seeing good cargo performance.

“While our freighter network remains intact, we are also ramping up our cargo capacity by mounting charter services and operating certain suspended passenger services purely for airfreight to meet cargo customer demand.”

Ronald Lam, Chief Customer and Commercial Officer
a large airplane with its engine open
Source: Cathay Pacific

United Airlines

A number of United Airline’s Boeing 777 and 787 fleet have become dedicated cargo charter aircraft, transferring freight to and from US hubs and key international business locations; operating a minimum of 40 flights a week.

The first of these freight-only flights departed on 19th March from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Frankfurt International Airport, with the cargo hold completely full with more than 29,000 lbs of goods.

“Connecting products to people around the world is the United Cargo mission. That role has never been more crucial than during the current crisis. Our team is working around the clock to provide innovative solutions for our customers and support the global community.”

Jan Krems, United Cargo President

American Airlines

American Airlines is also placing emphasis on air freight, launching the airline’s first scheduled cargo-only flight since the last of their Boeing 747 freighters was retired in 1984.


a large airplane in a hangar
Source: Qantas

The Australian flag carrier will continue to transport goods on key routes too, using some domestic passenger aircraft for freight-only flights to replace lost capacity from regular scheduled services. In addition the Qantas’ fleet of freighters will continue to be fully utilised.

International Airlines Group (IAG)

Around 90 per cent of airfreight from the UK travels in the belly hold of passenger aircraft. With passenger services severely restricted, IAG, which includes airlines in the UK, Ireland and Spain such as British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, are operating a global network of cargo flights on passenger aircraft to keep critical supply lines open.

The reality remains that airports are eerily quiet and our skies are almost unrecognisable. However, the airways above us are being put to critical use by airlines ensuring the world gets essential, life-saving, supplies when and where they are most needed.