Airlines turn from passengers to cargo as travel industry reels

Planes wait on the tarmac during the movement control order period.

PETALING JAYA: Local passenger airlines will soon ferry cargo instead of people as the nation’s aviation industry seeks to cushion the impact of the Covid-19 crisis which has seen a steep drop in number of passengers as travel and health checks remain in place.

The Board of Airline Representatives Malaysia (BAR-Malaysia) said rather than leave aircraft grounded without generating revenue, local airlines would pick up cargo, including light cargo which could be carried in the cabin.

“This will be a temporary measure while airlines are waiting for passenger traffic to return,” its chairman Suresh Singam told FMT.

Currently, he said, 105 airlines across the globe were either doing P2C (passenger-to-cargo) flights or CiC (cargo-in-cabin) flights.

In early May, Malaysia Airlines used an Airbus A380 to transport 36 tonnes of cargo between Kuala Lumpur and London. A total of 400 P2C flights were operated between March and May 27.

Suresh said the transport ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia had been supportive of the idea.

“They are working together to enable airlines to undertake P2C and CIC operations,” he added.

Such initiatives aren’t new. In April, Reuters reported that Germany’s Lufthansa Technik AG, Canada’s Avianor, Hong Kong’s HAECO Group and Belgium’s Akka Technologies were among those stripping out seats or adding nets and storage devices to cabins to cram in cargo instead of tourists.

While Lufthansa-owned Austrian Airlines has begun removing most passenger seats in some 777s, Polish LOT as well as Delta Air Lines are also examining freight makeovers.

Transport expert Goh Bok Yen said the trend should be further explored as it would be difficult for airlines to survive by depending solely on passengers.

He said the trend of cargo transportation could also be an opportunity to expand in that sector.

Malaysia Airlines, for one, could flourish in this market as the national carrier and given its experience in the aviation industry, he added.

“But the airlines here would require a well-built freight hub to capitalise on this demand.

“This is where the government can assist the local airlines as it would be beyond the capabilities of the airlines themselves,” Goh, who has been a transport consultant for 30 years, told FMT.

He said the hub would need to comprise, among others, a rail network to the different regions and ports,and infrastructure to accommodate other modes of transport as well.

He recommended that it be located in a large area to enable supporting activities such as repacking and distribution, especially for cargo linked to e-commerce. It also should be accorded free-trade zone status, he said.

“We have the necessary assets such as land banks, the available infrastructure, and the aircraft which are currently under-utilised. The government needs to realise this potential.”

Roger Teoh, who holds a doctorate in transport studies, said low jet fuel prices and the increased airfreight rate due to reduced cargo capacity in the aviation sector made it possible for the use of passenger aircraft as cargo-only flights.

He also said the move towards P2C would make sense if the Covid-19 crisis dragged on.

However, he spoke of the possibility that jet fuel prices would increase and airfreight rates plummet in the event that every airline adopts this approach.

“A more logical approach would be for airlines to convert aircraft that are close to retirement age, to offset the cost and risk of having to reconvert it back to a passenger configuration.”

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