United Airlines will restart cargo-only flights using empty passenger planes because the Delta variant has had such a big impact on travel demand. The airline had only just phased out its special pandemic-era freighter services after passenger bookings surged over the summer but it has had to rethink its strategy after sales started to slide again.
The cargo-only flights use passenger planes where freight is either just loaded into the cargo hold as normal or additional freight is carried in the passenger cabin by strapping it to seats. Some airlines have even ripped out passenger seats on some of their aircraft to maximize the amount of cargo they can carry.
Freight services have been in huge demand throughout the pandemic and United’s special cargo-only flights had helped push the airline’s cargo revenue up by as much as 105 per cent in the second quarter.
But in July, United was forced to suspend freighter-only services because the demand for international long-haul and business travel had “accelerated even faster than anticipated”.
The Delta variant has, however, delivered a blow to the recovery for business travel and the winter could prove particularly challenging. Many businesses are delaying the return of workers to the office while the world battle COVID-19 surges.
Meanwhile, the demand for freight continues, seemingly unabated.
“I just released five [Boeing] 777-300s to our cargo division for later this year to put those aircraft back into all-cargo markets, based on the dynamics we’re seeing in the marketplace today, so these aircraft won’t be idle,” said chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella during a Cowen’s transportation investor conference.
Nocella previously said he was “disappointed” that United couldn’t continue with its cargo-only flights because the yields were so good.
“What we’re trying to do is create a level of stickiness with the revenue trends we’ve seen during the pandemic for a post-pandemic cargo environment,” Nocella continued. “We’re working to figure out how we keep as much of that revenue on board United Airlines as we possibly can as we come out of the pandemic.”
That is a challenge made more complicated by the fact some Boeing 777-200’s with Pratt & Whitney 4000-series engines have been grounded after a United aircraft suffered an uncontained engine failure during takeoff from Denver earlier this year.
Nocella said that during some points in the pandemic, the grounding of these aircraft had been beneficial to United, while at other times, the airline had really wished it could press these planes into action.
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.