United Airlines has largely phased out lucrative cargo-only flights where freight is strapped to seats because it needs the planes to carry actual passengers, chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella has confirmed. United’s pandemic freighter flights helped push the airline’s cargo revenue up by as much as 105 per cent in the second quarter.
On Wednesday, United said international long-haul and business travel had “accelerated even faster than anticipated” which means the airline is converting the widebody long-haul planes that are used for cargo-only flights back to passenger operations.
At the start of the pandemic, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made an exemption that allowed airlines like United and American Airlines to carry freight in the passenger cabin. Some airlines simply strapped cargo to the regular passenger seats while others have ripped out the passenger seats to increase the cargo capacity.
The FAA has extended its exemption until the end of 2021 although it would now appear that United won’t need to make use of the exemption as refocuses on its passenger operation.
Cargo services helped airlines make some much-needed revenue during the pandemic, helped along by a booming home shopping market. United is concerned that it may lose out financially by dropping its freighter flights.
“We are not going to be able to do more cargo-only flights. We’re obviously disappointed by that, given where yields currently stand. The reason for that is the aircraft can be better deployed in passenger markets,” Nocella commented during Wednesday’s conference call.
Over the last 15 months, United has operated 13,400 auxiliary freighter flights but in recent weeks this number has started to dwindle and only a handful more are planned in the coming days.
United has been nimble in adjusting passenger flights to destinations with the greatest demand but only a few of these markets are traditionally strong cargo destinations.
Nocella noted that the decision to ground some Boeing 777 aircraft with Pratt & Whitney following an incident over Denver in February had also impacted United’s ability to carry on flying cargo-only flights.
“If those aircraft are flying, we clearly would continue our program missions because we’d have the ability to do both,” he commented.
“Hopefully we can do a little better on cargo than we are currently planning. But there is a marked change in our cargo footprint starting today — really starting a few weeks ago and we’ll see where it goes. But we’re feeling very bullish on cargo for the remaining half of this year.”
Despite the drop off in cargo-only services, United says it is aiming to turn a profit in the third quarter and expects a full recovery in demand by 2023.
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.