Carriers transform fleets to operate cargo-only flights
Published: Apr 13, 2020 10:43 PM

Photo: Courtesy of China Eastern

Chinese carriers are switching to cargo-only services amid a downturn in passenger demand as airlines including China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines have all started to transform their operations. 

On Sunday night, a twice-weekly passenger flight operated by China Southern flew from Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, to Sydney, only this time as a cargo service, according to a note China Southern sent to the Global Times on Monday. 

Xiamen Airlines is expected to operate its passenger-turned-cargo flight from Xiamen, East China's Fujian Province to Manila on Tuesday, and the carrier completed a cargo flight from Kuala Lumpur on Friday. It will have a daily cargo flight from Xiamen to Manila, and it is planning to fly to more cities such as Los Angeles, Vancouver and Sydney with cargo-only services.

China Eastern Airlines said it had 15 cargo-only flights from March 19-31, reaching cities such as Prague, Rome and Milan. Five A330-200 passenger planes were refitted in March, and all are now in operation. So far this month, it has operated 20 such flights.

The trend toward cargo-only services comes as international passenger flights have dropped, while demand for international freight services has remained at a high level during the epidemic, China Southern said. 

A staff member at China Southern told the Global Times that cargo rates soared after the Spring Festival holidays in late January. For example, the rate per kilogram for masks shipped from Shanghai Pudong to Frankfurt, Germany hit more than 140 yuan ($19.7) at the end of March, compared with a low of about 10 yuan in the past.

Both passenger traffic and freight capacity has been declining, as more countries block flights to prevent a rise in COVID-19 cases. But as the pandemic spreads across the world, demand for medical supplies has increased dramatically, making cargo flights necessary and important. 

"It is not symbolic," Yu Zhanfu, global partner at strategy consultancy Roland Berger, told the Global Times on Monday. 

He said that at present, freight capacity is insufficient and freight rates are high. Such flights offer airlines a way to offset losses in the passenger segment.

Lin Zhijie, a veteran industry watcher, told the Global Times on Monday that in February, passenger traffic fell by 85 percent, but freight volume fell only 21 percent. But 70 percent of the cargo is usually transported in the hold of a passenger aircraft, especially for domestic freight services, as the hold of the passenger aircraft could account for 82 percent of total freight capacity.

Transforming passenger planes into cargo planes is welcomed by the nation's aviation regulator, and doing so can help reduce airline losses during the epidemic and avoid airline bankruptcies, insiders said.