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Air Canada's first Boeing 777-300ER converted for cargo service, seen here, carried personal protective equipment from Shanghai to Toronto last month.

Courtesy of manufacturer

More than a quarter of a century after retiring its last dedicated freighter, Air Canada is back in the business of flying exclusive cargo flights.

Last month, the passenger airline removed seats from four Boeing 777 300ERs, more than doubling the space available for goods on the planes. The aircraft are primarily moving masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment necessary to combat COVID-19 from Shanghai to Canada. The airline also plans to convert four Airbus A330s to serve routes to Europe and South America.

“We weren’t looking to be in the freighter business until this moment,” said Tim Strauss, the airline’s vice-president of cargo. “We’re doing this so we can get more PPE equipment back into Canada faster than could have been done otherwise.”

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American Airlines and Finland’s Finnair have also rapidly converted aircraft into freighters, and new announcements arrive weekly. Now everyone from ground crews to airport officials to regulators are scrambling to adapt to these strange hybrid planes.

While not unprecedented, such wholesale repurposing of aircraft occurs only during humanitarian crises, said Jonathan McDonald, an analyst with aviation consultancy IBA. Rare examples included large-scale airlifts after a tropical cyclone destroyed Darwin, Australia, in 1974, and during famines in Ethiopia.

“In history, yes, there have been one-off events. You had the Berlin Airlift, I suppose, but that’s going back 70-plus years.”

Normally, people are a passenger airline’s most valuable cargo. But COVID-19 halted most human traffic and grounded fleets worldwide. Because passenger jets also carry cargo – typically high-value goods that justify increased air shipping costs – the result was a dramatic drop in available capacity for urgent shipments.

“In the pre-COVID-19 environment, 70 per cent of our cargo was travelling in the bellies of passenger aircraft,” said Craig Bradbrook, vice-president of aviation services at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which runs Pearson International Airport. “The airlines have scrambled to look at ways in which they can continue to move cargo.”

In a bid to replace some of that lost capacity and a small fraction of the revenue they’ve lost as a result of COVID-19 travel bans, airlines began flying cargo-only flights. At first, some airlines strapped boxes onto seats in passenger compartments. But Air Canada quickly realized this approach risked damaging the pricey video entertainment systems on seat backs. Moving cargo in passenger cabins is also slow and cumbersome.

The airline’s maintenance chief, Richard Steer, suggested removing the seats and stuffing cargo into the cabin. Canada’s aviation regulator, Transport Canada, responded encouragingly to the proposal. Air Canada partnered with Avianor, a firm that specializes in commercial jet cabins, to convert the 777s at Montréal-Mirabel International Airport.

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Late last month, Jazz Airlines (which operates as Air Canada Express) announced plans to convert up to 13 of its Dash 8-400 aircraft using a “simplified package freighter” kit provided by the manufacturer, De Havilland Canada. De Havilland is in the process of introducing kits for earlier Dash 8 models.

Todd Young, De Havilland’s chief operating officer, said his company already had a program in the works to convert Dash 8s into dedicated freighters. After COVID-19 struck, the company realized it needed a more immediate solution.

“We wanted to keep our airplanes flying,” he said. “We wanted our customers to have options, to be able to perform a different mission than transporting personnel or passengers from point to point.”

Since announcing the conversion kits with Jazz, five international customers have placed their own orders, Mr. Young said.

Passenger airliners were routinely converted for cargo service before the pandemic; manufacturers such as Boeing, as well as third parties, have been doing brisk business in recent years. But proper conversions are a one-way trip, typically reserved for mid-life jets. Seats, overhead bins and “monuments” such as areas designated for flight attendants and catering are removed. A new, larger door is cut. Floors are reinforced, windows are plugged, and cargo handling systems and fire suppression equipment are installed. Afterward, a converted plane can be expected to haul cargo for 15 years or more.

Such changes permanently alter an aircraft’s balance and weight; it can take years to satisfy regulators that a given conversion process produces jets that are safe to fly.

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They’re also costly. Mr. McDonald said the price for a 737-400 can be up to US$3-million. For wide-body aircraft such as 767s, it’s about US$14-million.

These COVID-19 conversions are rapid and inexpensive by comparison. Air Canada’s 777s, for instance, are far too young to be candidates for permanent conversion. “It’s very much a temporary role change for the aircraft,” Mr. McDonald said. “There’s obviously very good intentions, it’s humanitarian, it’s doing your bit to fight this bloody coronavirus, and it provides utilization for aircraft, which would otherwise just be sitting.”

The limited nature of the changes also helps comfort regulators. De Havilland’s conversion kits, for instance, couldn’t be more straightforward. Operators remove the seats and install tie-down fittings to hold 17 nets for securing cargo inside the passenger compartment. Aircraft can be converted overnight, Mr. Young said.

To facilitate regulatory approval, Air Canada sought a much lower maximum cargo weight than a 777 is capable of carrying – no great sacrifice, because PPE doesn’t weigh much. The aircraft’s lock system for seats is compatible with hardware for securing nets, further simplifying matters.

“We made it as simple to approve as you could possibly make it,” said Mr. Strauss, who praised Transport Canada’s rapid accommodation.

Mr. Strauss said Air Canada would like to convert some 787s as well, but those aircraft feature different seat locking mechanisms. “That would have taken a whole different certification process and much, much longer time,” he said. “Who knows if you’d even have it done this year?”

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Airlines and regulators aren’t the only party forced to adapt to these unusual hybrid aircraft. Ground handlers must also figure out how to work with them.

“It’s still a passenger aircraft in terms of design,” Mr. Bradbrook said. “The door apertures are for passengers. They were never designed to take bulk cargo. So we’ve had to work with airlines and ground handlers to look at new processes for loading and unloading cargo piece by piece.” GTAA has provided mobile roller beds to handlers, and some airlines are using catering trucks to load cargo onto the main deck.

Gradually, efficiency is improving. Air Canada’s first loading in Shanghai late last month took five hours, but with optimization and experience that was quickly compressed to one hour and 15 minutes – all while maintaining physical distancing.

But temporarily converted planes will never be as efficient or inexpensive to operate as dedicated freighters. They introduce new costs: Crew members are required in cabins on temporarily converted Dash 8s to monitor packages and react in the event of fire, for example. And they’ll never replace passengers, which Mr. Strauss said usually brings in at least five times as much revenue a kilogram as cargo does.

Moreover, routes typically enjoy two-way traffic. Yet during COVID-19, cargo often moves in only one direction, for example from China to Canada.

All that helps explain today’s sky-high air cargo rates. Mr. Bradbrook said he’d heard they’d tripled. “The rates are high,” Mr. Strauss said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

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Asked how many more temporary conversions will take place during COVID-19, Mr. McDonald said he couldn’t hazard a guess.

“In order to make a reliable forecast, sometimes you need past data to gauge trends and habits. This is such a new phenomenon that you can’t gauge to what extent people are going to do this. It’s still very early days.”

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