As the world grapples with a severe capacity shortfall of air cargo created by restrictions on passenger flights, Biman Bangladesh Airlines has extended its cargo operations to passenger compartments by converting idle passenger flights into air freighters.
This new initiative comes after global air cargo capacity shrank by 22.7 percent in March compared to the same month in the previous year, according to latest data of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Belly capacity for international air cargo – which accounts for 87 percent of the total market – shrank by 43.7 percent in March compared to the previous year.
However, the shortfall in capacity was partially offset by a 6.2 percent increase in capacity through expanded use of freighter aircraft, including the use of idle passenger aircraft for all-cargo operations, according to IATA.
"While there is an immediate capacity shortage, the collapsing economy is expected to further depress overall cargo volumes," said IATA.
National carrier Biman operated its first full cargo flight with its Boeing 777 passenger aircraft on May 15 at 7pm. A ferry flight departed for China from Dhaka, that carried medical equipment from China to Maldives and then returned with 353 Bangladeshis from its last destination, according to Biman.
Before starting full cargo operations with passenger aircraft, Biman sought approval from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) and the manufacturer of the aircraft, said Biman Managing Director Md Mokabbir Hossain.
He said as passenger flight operations remain suspended due to the pandemic, Biman has converted its idle passenger aircraft into cargo planes to develop business amid the rising demand of freight services.
Earlier, goods were carried in the belly of this aircraft, but now passenger seats will be used to carry goods as well.
This is the first time Biman is operating full cargo flights with passenger aircraft. So, Biman has trained its cargo staff for running cargo operations on passenger seats in order to ensure the safety of aircraft equipment, he said.
Biman also conducted three demo flights for operating cargo on passenger seats, the managing director added.
Mokabbir said the demand for medical and pharmaceutical shipments have increased worldwide during this critical situation, adding cargo operations will offset the loss from passenger flight suspensions.
Following the request from Biman, CAAB issued a guideline on April 13 allowing local and foreign operators to carry cargo in passenger compartments – subject to maintaining relevant safety measures to prevent damaging seats – during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
Any airlines that intend to carry out such operations will have to apply to CAAB for approval. The approved airlines are allowed to operate passenger and cargo flights together or to only transport cargo in the passenger compartment, according to the guideline.
Passenger flight operations have been suspended till May 30 in Bangladesh to curb the spread of novel coronavirus, but cargo flight operations remain normal.
US-Bangla, the largest private airline of the country, also started to operate cargo flights from April.
Biman saw a sharp 94 percent fall in export cargo in April and 80 percent in import cargo amid the Covid-19 crisis.
In the first four months of the current year, export cargo fell by 32 percent year-on-year and import cargo dipped by 11 percent, according to Biman data.
"At present, we don't have enough capacity to meet the remaining demand for air cargo," IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said in a recent press release.
He further said volumes fell by over 15 percent in March compared to the previous year, but capacity plummeted by almost 23 percent. The gap must be addressed quickly because vital supplies must get to where they are needed most.
"For example, there is a doubling of demand for pharmaceutical shipments that are critical to this crisis. With most of the passenger fleets sitting idle, airlines are doing their best to meet demand by adding freighter services, including adapting passenger aircraft to all-cargo activity," Juniac added.
The IATA believes that the capacity crunch will be a temporary problem, and the recession will likely hit air cargo at least as severely as it does the rest of the economy.
To keep the supply chain moving to meet what demand might exist, airlines must be financially viable, the IATA said.
Total freight traffic market shares by region of carriers, in terms of cargo tonne kilometres, are 34.5 percent for Asia-Pacific, 23.6 percent for Europe, 24.3 percent for North America, 13 percent for Middle East, 2.8 percent for Latin America and 1.8 percent for Africa.