American Airlines has been forced to slash its schedule by around 80 per cent for April and May and is running a skeleton service on just a few select international services because of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Even by the peak of the Summer season, American only plans to operate around 40 per cent of its previously planned passenger schedule… and that’s if the situation improves over the next couple of months.
With hundreds of planes grounded, American has found itself in a situation where its cargo capacity has also been slashed, so since last month the airline has been operating cargo-only flights in order to make sure vital supplies can get to where they are needed. It’s the first time since 1984 that American has operated cargo-only flights on passenger aircraft.
Some of these services will utilise just the belly-hold cargo compartments like normal but others will also involve filling up the passenger cabin with cargo as well. And when this happens, flight attendants will be required to work the flight like they would with passengers onboard.
The reason is that unlike the belly hold, the passenger cabin doesn’t have highly sensitive smoke detectors or built-in fire suppression systems. As a result, if a fire did occur inflight, there would potentially be no way for the pilots to know what was happening until it was too late.
As a result, many aviation regulators require flight attendants or other crew to take on the role of “Fire Watch” guards to keep an eye on the cargo. Flight attendants are often the first choice for this type of work because they are already trained in detecting and fighting fires in the passenger cabin.
Cargo-only flights will be operating between select cities in the United States and Buenos Aires, Dublin, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo. More than 5.5 million pounds of cargo are expected to be transported on these special charter flights in April alone.
A further 350,000 pounds of medical supplies have already been shifted on American Airlines flight to support frontline healthcare workers across the United States.
On widebody aircraft, American will assign three flight attendants to its cargo-only operation, while narrowbody aircraft like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 will need only two flight attendants. At least one flight attendant will need to keep watch at any one time, while others take rest on long international flights.
In recent days, American revealed that over a third of its flight attendant and pilot workforce had opted to take a voluntary leave of absence or early retirement because of the Coronavirus crisis. 4,800 pilots will take leave during April or May, while another 715 have been granted an “early out” which includes some pay and benefits.
Nearly 8,000 flight attendants, out of a total workforce of around 24,000, have also opted to take leave or early retirement.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.