Cathay Pacific strips seats from 777 aircraft for cargo

A Cathay Pacific widebody jet, up close side view. Cathay Pacific is removing seats from a couple planes to increase cargo capacity.
Cathay Pacific is pulling seats from a couple of twin-aisle planes to make way for more cargo. (Photo: Cathay Pacific)

After operating thousands of cargo-only passenger flights since late March, Cathay Pacific  has deployed two widebody aircraft with seats removed to maximize floor loading of cargo in the passenger cabin. The Hong Kong-based airline removed the economy and premium economy seats from two Boeing 777 passenger planes to create more space for personal protection equipment and high-value products, it said in a cargo-oriented newsletter published Friday. Cathay Pacific began flying the modified aircraft at the end of July to Australia, which has suffered from limited air shipping supply.

It is participating in Australia’s International Freight Assistance Mechanism, which the government created to  help agricultural exporters get products to market after airlines closed passenger networks because of the coronavirus pandemic. The emergency program, which has been extended until year’s end, coordinates and subsidizes shipments through a select group of freight forwarders and airlines. The seatless aircraft, which were reconfigured by HAECO in Xiamen, China, can carry 12 extra tons of cargo, according to Cathay Pacific.

The overhaul and maintenance company also modified the seat track and marked lashing points for securing cargo to the floor The Hong Kong  Civil Aviation Department requires the airline to place cargo in customized bags made from a fire-retardant material that helps keep the cargo intact. Other airlines are using “seat bags” to protect aircraft interiors from boxes placed in seats, but this is the first known example of an airline receiving an operating exemption for floor loading with bagged cargo. Each bag is secured to the floor with a net. Safety requirements include keeping the front and rear seat rows in place to protect the doors and bulkheads from cargo that might shift during turbulence. Two or three airline employees accompany the cargo in the cabin to periodically check on the cargo and respond to any potential fire. All aviation authorities that allow airlines to operate with cabin cargo require cargo marshals because cabins aren’t equipped with fire-suppression systems.

Dangerous goods are never allowed in the upper deck. Redeploying idle aicraft for dedicated cargo service has been lucrative for passenger airlines. Cathay Pacific is late to the game of removing seats from passenger planes to create more space for cargo. Air Canada and Lufthansa did so in April. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last month granted U.S. carriers the authority to strip cabins of seats for cargo purposes. But Cathay Pacific is a combination carrier with a fleet of 20 Boeing 747 freighters at its disposal and likely didn’t feel the urgency of pure passenger airlines to increase cargo capacity. 

Cathay Pacific, which has been carrying medical supplies and other goods in seats and overhead baggage compartments since May, developed special procedures for loading cargo on cabin floors. Warehouse workers put the cargo bags in half-sized containers in the order they will be positioned in the plane. The containers are towed to the aircraft and unloaded one box at a time into hydraulic catering service trucks that are lifted to the rear doors of the aircraft. Ground handlers then wheel boxes into the cabin, position them according to the load plan and zip and secure the bags. Cabin loading takes much more time and manpower  than loading a pure freighter with containers and pallets.

Cathay Pacific estimates the load time at about three hours, but says it hopes to get faster as it refines the handling process. Alex Leung, the cargo products manager, said Cathay could convert more planes to seat-less freighters if demand persists, especially as the need for pandemic supplies collides with the peak shipping season this fall.  Cathay is only operating about 10% of its normal passenger schedule this month and has warned it expects to record a $1.3 billion loss for the first half of 2020. 


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