The pandemic is all but over, but European Cargo, a British-based carrier, still uses aircraft that look like temporary freighters. But are they?
Remember “preighters”? This was a combination of the words “passenger” and “freighter”, that we first heard in 2020. With no passengers going anywhere, especially internationally, many airlines pressed passenger jets into service as freighters.
Some airlines put boxes of vital cargo on top of existing passenger seats. Others removed many/most seats and secured cargo on the bare floor of the cabin. The arrangement obviously didn’t work as well (or as fast) as a dedicated freighter with a full-size cargo door. But it was necessary.
This was because of the loss of around 50% of the world’s air cargo capacity, which is what the cargo hold of passenger jets amounts to. Sea-fairing shipping experienced severe upsets and delays, which boosted demand for air freight even more.
European Cargo – From PPE to E-commerce?
Through this mess, many countries needed to secure the supply of personal protective equipment. This is how European Cargo came into being, in 2020. European Cargo is a subsidiary of European Aviation Air Charter. It started operations with an Airbus A340 that used to fly for Virgin Atlantic.
The company now has seven aircraft, all of them Airbus A340s, and it expects more to come. Which is a bit odd, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, worldwide demand for cargo appears to be dropping quickly, as long-haul passenger travel recovers rapidly.
The speed of this recovery in specific areas around the world varies, depending on local travel conditions between specific city pairs. But European Cargo seems to have found an interesting niche.
Rather than fly through busier UK cargo hubs, like Heathrow or Stansted, European Cargo is based in Bournemouth. The company continues to find new contracts for regular flights between its base and Chinese hubs, for e-commerce and other markets.
A second reason why the continuing use of Airbus A340s as freighters is a bit odd is because there are no “full” freighter conversions for Airbus A340s. But this doesn’t mean that the jets that European Cargo uses are “preighters”.
A Longer-Term Freighter Setup
We have seen that companies like Lufthansa Technik have previously modified passenger aircraft to increase the weight of cargo that they could carry in the main cabin. European Cargo designed a similar modification but with an extra twist.
One key difference between cargo and passenger aircraft is their levels of fire protection. Freighters need additional certification, to carry things like large loads of lithium batteries – that can’t travel in a passenger jet’s cargo hold.
European Cargo doesn’t modify jets with a large cargo door. But after removing seats, toilets, and galleys, the company places a number of pods, each of which has an additional fire containment barrier. The lack of a large door very likely slows down turnarounds. But it still allows the company to carry key e-commerce equipment, between China and the UK.
The company likely benefits from low lease (or purchase) costs for its A340s, which are rapidly becoming rare in passenger service. But the company now has over two years of experience in these operations, so the news that it is still finding new customers seems promising.