EASA ends ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ flights – what now?
By Steve Gill, Managing Director, Bournemouth Airport
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) stopped issuing approvals and exemptions for the transport of cargo in passenger compartments, widely known as ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ flights, on July 31 this year.
The move represents perhaps the biggest news in the European freight sector since we at Cargo First launched, as Bournemouth Airport’s dedicated cargo handling service, this April.
So what’s our perspective?
The story so far…
Managed on a case-by-case basis, ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ flights – either with seats in place or removed – were introduced in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The air cargo industry entered the world of the repurposed passenger aircraft-as-freighter, or ‘preighter’.
With so many scheduled passenger services grounded, and the consequent loss of valuable belly hold capacity, the move made sense. Travel restrictions and lockdowns meant people weren’t flying but freight still needed to flow, not least medical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits to fight the pandemic.
Virtually every airworthy cargo aircraft was being put into service to meet the high demand during the crisis, making the support of ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ (CIC) flights invaluable. Carriers including British Airways, Emirates and Qatar Airways took advantage of the initiative.
However, following a review of the operational context for the transport of cargo in the passenger cabin, EASA concluded on April 11 this year that the logistical challenges that arose in 2020 no longer exist to the same extent.
Supply chain disruptions
Removing the huge volume of ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ capacity now (which includes the use of widebody aircraft such as the Airbus A330 and the Boeing 777) must raise questions about how the air cargo sector will cope with the resulting increase in short- and long-term demand we expect to see, not least here at Bournemouth Airport.
Compounding the issue globally are supply chain disruptions being caused of late by congestion at busy hubs such as Los Angeles International Airport, London Heathrow Airport and New York JFK International Airport.
Geopolitical matters, such as the war in Ukraine, only add to the complications and challenges.
IATA offers input
All the issues above have come together to mean life is particularly difficult right now for freight forwarders and air cargo operators trying to move their goods where, when and how they want.
To relieve supply chain disruptions, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has this year called on governments to ensure aircrew operations are not hindered by COVID-19 restrictions designed for air travellers. They also urged governments to provide innovative policy incentives to address labour shortages.
IATA’s director general Willie Walsh said: “Governments must act quickly to relieve pressure on global supply chains before it permanently dents the shape of the economic recovery from COVID-19.”
Encouragingly, as post-pandemic passenger services ramp up, so will the vital belly cargo capacity on those flights, reducing the pressure on the logistics chain. Operators are already looking for ways to maximise that belly space, although the changing shape, size and design of new aircraft means the belly capacity per aircraft is generally falling.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for opportunity to extend the CIC deadline whilst alternative approaches – such as those offered by regional airports – are developed has now passed. So, it is clear the air cargo industry still needs to find more capacity on the ground and will now need more capacity in the air.
Regional airport solutions
Mounting pressure at hubs means freight forwarders are increasingly likely to look for opportunities to do business at regional airports. We’re already seeing this trend at Cargo First, with Bournemouth Airport now on the verge of breaking into the UK’s 10 busiest freight airports (having handled almost no cargo as recently as early 2020).
Regional airports can offer freight forwarders greater flexibility than hubs in areas such as flight timings, as well as a more streamlined and personalised customer service approach. At Cargo First, for example, our unified ‘One Team’ strategy means our customers don’t have to deal with multiple vendors, allowing us to maximise efficiency and speed-to-market for our clients. Hubs, however, often outsource different stages of the cargo operation to different companies, which can be tiresome for freight forwarders.
The congested roads around hubs can also mean a regional airport offers a faster ground cargo service to a city centre than a hub geographically closer to that city. For example, without the congestion and delays experienced at larger hubs, the fastest shipping to London has regularly proved to be through Bournemouth Airport, not Heathrow.
A regional airport such as Bournemouth offers freight forwarders 24/7 capability and ample airfield space, often including more land than hubs can provide to expand and establish new facilities.
And open slot availability, uncongested airspace and attractive tariffs compared to hubs all strengthen the regional airport offering too.
European Cargo fleet optimisation
As post-July 31 freight capacity in passenger aircraft falls, dedicated freight operators – including Bournemouth Airport-based European Cargo – are no doubt seeking to exploit the new opportunities.
The huge international resurgence in demand for cargo aircraft, driven partly by rising e-commerce trade, has created a low inventory for freighters. As a result, many passenger airlines have been selling their narrowbody and widebody aircraft to be converted for cargo operations (known as passenger-to-freighter or P2F conversions).
We expect this P2F trend to continue, alongside a thriving market of operators ordering freighters, including airlines which have previously focused on passenger traffic.
European Cargo already operates a fleet of seven Airbus A340 P2F widebody aircraft and provided vital support bringing hundreds of millions of items of PPE and test kits into the UK during the pandemic. Now, to meet rising demand, the company has secured funds to expand that programme of P2F conversions to 10, by the end of 2022.
As the diversity of European Cargo’s consignments continues to grow – now including mail, cars and e-commerce – we look forward to a long and prosperous future working with the carrier.
Positive economic conditions
Through fleet modification and expansion, and the improved and greater use of regional airports, the international air cargo community can offset the industry’s challenges, including the end of ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ flights.
Demand is growing. Freight forwarders are opening their eyes to opportunities away from major hubs. New entrants such as Bournemouth Airport are here to stay.
And it’s worth saying the burden of Brexit bureaucracy is creating opportunities here, with consignments that might previously have been flown into mainland Europe, and then trucked into the UK, often now landing directly in the UK.
Despite the supply chain disruptions and localised capacity constraints mentioned earlier, the global economic conditions remain favourable for air cargo. Inventory-to-sales ratios are often low, which is positive for our sector as manufacturers turn to air cargo to meet demand quickly.
Expect to see increasingly innovative logistics solutions. The market is expanding, with new players delivering greater and much-needed choice and flexibility. The dominance of the established air cargo hubs and carriers, including the major passenger airlines, is being challenged. As a result, many air transportation companies are taking cargo more seriously than ever before and reviewing their freight strategies to be as effective as possible moving forward in the changing environment.
Having proved our competence and raised awareness of our specialist cargo handling offering so quickly, we’re very excited by the opportunities ahead at Cargo First.
If you have any questions about how the end of ‘cargo-in-the-cabin’ flights might impact your air cargo transportation operations, please don’t hesitate to let us know at Cargo First.