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Airlines in Japan convert passenger planes to cargo-only carriers amid coronavirus crisis

Goods in boxes are seen fastened to individual seats with seatbelts on a passenger plane in this photo provided by ANA.

NARITA, Chiba -- Airlines in Japan are trying to survive the current coronavirus crisis by finding an alternative use of deserted passenger planes through the transportation of cargo.

Planes that were originally designed to carry passengers are fully loaded with cargo piled in the baggage compartment in the belly of the plane, as well as in the overhead bins and individual seats inside the cabin. Airlines are trying to generate profits by increasing the amount of transported cargo, even if only to a slight degree, amid a dramatic decrease in the number of airline passengers, which is not expected to recover anytime soon.

A Japan Airlines Co. (JAL) Boeing 787-8 aircraft that departed Shanghai landed at Narita International Airport east of Tokyo on April 22. The cabin was empty without any passengers except for two cabin crew members who were required to stay on for potential emergency issues and surveillance of the cargo. Placed at a height of 1.6 to 1.8 meters, the overhead bins for storing carry-on luggage were tightly packed with 152 cardboard boxes containing a total of 91,200 masks.

The passenger plane was converted into a cargo-only aircraft, carrying 14 metric tons of items including clothing, food and masks. The compartment for storing cargo located in the belly of the plane was fully packed, and 1.2 tons worth of masks were stored in the overhead bins of the cabin. Upon arrival, 14 ground staff members came aboard and moved the cardboard boxes from the overhead bins to the airport apron by passing them around one by one in a relay.

Cardboard boxes containing masks are seen placed in the overhead bins in the cabin of a JAL plane at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on April 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

In a similar manner, All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) operated a cargo-only carrier and placed masks, clothing and general goods on the passenger seats of the plane for the first time between Shanghai and Haneda Airport in Tokyo on April 22. Of the 246 seats on the Boeing 787-9 aircraft, 183 economy class seats were used for holding the goods. The items were placed and fastened onto the seats, which were covered in vinyl, with seatbelts and extension belts. When the cabin is additionally used, the capacity for storing freight inside an aircraft can become up to 1.4 times larger when compared to that when only the cargo compartment is used.

Yoshinori Morimoto, president of JAL Cargo Service Co., a subsidiary of JAL, commented, "The international distribution of goods must not be halted. We can make a profit by operating flights that carry only cargo, even if there are no passengers riding the plane. While the number of passengers is on the decline, we would like to contribute to the boosting of revenue by transporting cargo."

A steep increase in air cargo fares looms in the background. According to multiple airfreight-related sources, the fare has increased by about 30% compared to that of the same period the year before. For North American airlines, cargo fares rose by up to 2.5 times from the previous year at one point. As JAL and ANA have decreased their international passenger flights dramatically by 90%, the airfreight capacity of passenger planes using the cargo hold dropped greatly. On the other hand, essential goods including masks, protective gear and international mail are increasingly in high demand. Despite the high airfreight fares, such cargo requires transportation by air rather than sea, as the latter takes more time. Therefore, the transportation of airfreight is currently delayed due to high demand.

Airlines are increasing operations of cargo-only passenger planes at an unprecedented scale. Between March 9 and April 16, JAL operated 329 cargo-only flights and the company plans to operate 878 of such flights until the end of May. President Morimoto explained that almost all flights are fully loaded. ANA operated 334 cargo-only flights in March and April, and plans to operate 192 flights in May. Airlines overseas have also been using passenger planes as cargo carriers.

Cargo aircraft with a freight capacity about three times that of passenger planes have also been increasingly operated. ANA had a total of 384 special service flights and charter flights for March and April. Nippon Cargo Airlines Co. conducted 17 such flights in March and 16 flights in April. A representative for the airline commented, "The proportions of small-lot cargo and perishable cargo, which are usually transported by passenger flights, have risen."

According to Tokyo Customs' Narita branch, the total amount of international air cargo handled in March was 188,113 tons, an increase of 2.3% from the same period of the previous year.

(Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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