Cathay Pacific Cargo joins the ‘preighter’ club with the first of two B777 passenger aircraft converted to all-cargo through the removal of passenger seats.
With the seats removed in the Economy and Premium Economy cabins, Cathay can now carry 12 tonnes of additional cargo on its main deck, under enhanced safety and security measures, it says.
The carrier has converted two aircraft into ‘preighters’ so far, but as both the year and the pandemic progress, this could change says Alex Leung, cargo products manager. “It’s traditionally the peak period, so we will convert more if market demand persists and justifies the operations commercially.”
The Hong Kong carrier is tapping these ‘preighters’ to supplement its freight fleet of six B747-400ERFs and 14 B747-8Fs.
Leung continues: “Capacity in the air cargo market is still in high demand with the grounding of passenger aircraft, but factories in the Chinese mainland are still running so there is some need for cargo that isn’t being met in the market.”
Australia is one such market where cargo demand is high. “There is a significant demand there because of the reduction in the number of flights, so we looked at this as a solution to increase our cargo capacity,” Leung adds.
Even with hundreds of cargo-only passenger flights – some with certification from the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department (HKCAD) to operate flights with cargo secured in passenger seats and overhead baggage bins – overall capacity remains tight.
The aircraft was modified at the HAECO facility in Xiamen where seats were removed and modifications made to the seat track to enable cargo to be secured to the floor, as well as markings for the lashing points and bespoke cargo bags.
The carrier highlights that all changes conformed to Boeing and regulator requirements, which included keeping the front and rear seat rows in place inside each cabin to protect the doors and bulkheads in case of cargo shifts during turbulence. Cargo bags are also secured across 23 positions in three cabin areas.
Cathay Pacific Cargo Standards Policy and Operations support manager Simon Leung says: “These cargo bags are tailor-made for this project, and it is part of the HKCAD requirement. It’s different to what other carriers are doing, but the bag is made from a fire-retardant material, which meets the compartment interiors requirement and helps keep the cargo shape.”
Each bag is further secured by cargo nets and lashings. To add a further layer of safety, cabin crew are on board to serve as cargo marshals. Teams check on the cargo every 20 to 30 minutes during the flight and because dangerous and special-handling cargo is not permitted in the cabin, this is mainly an extra safety precaution.
As other carriers have been forced to device new loading strategies for the so-called ‘preighters’, Cathay has also had to develop new procedures.
In the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal, the team loads AKE containers to replicate the bag positions in the cabin. These are towed aircraft side by ground-handling subsidiary HAS, and unloaded one box at a time into Cathay Pacific Catering Service trucks at the rear doors of the aircraft. Boxes are then wheeled into the cabin, loaded into cargo bags as per the load plan, and finally zipped and secured by another HAS team.
The labour-intensive process requires extra ground time which was built into the first flight which saw 521 boxes of garments totalling nearly five tonnes.
Simon Leung believes that ‘preighter’ load times can be brought down to three hours quite comfortably, as on the debut flight. “But there is always room for improvement,” he adds.