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With air passengers in short supply, major airlines are using passenger planes for all-cargo flights in an effort to keep their businesses aloft.

As the pandemic brought air travel nearly to a halt in March, airlines were forced to cut thousands of flights. Those that remained had so few passengers, the business was rapidly becoming unsustainable, even for the strongest carriers. The future of the airline industry remains uncertain. But there is one bright spot: While passengers have stayed away, demand for the transportation of goods by air remains. And with air freight capacity down, rates are up. Airline executives saw an opportunity, and in March, started putting their vacant passenger planes to use.

Airfreight transportation is normally divided between parcel delivery firms like UPS, FedEx and DHL and airlines. The latter would routinely carry freight along with passengers, but rarely used their planes for only cargo. Virgin, for example, had never used a passenger plane for a cargo-only flight – until late March. Now it is operating 90 such flights a week. “The cargo business is keeping aircraft, which would otherwise be parked, in the air and given us all more hope than otherwise that we will come out of this,” said Dominic Kennedy, Managing Director of Cargo for Virgin.

In the U.S., the three largest airlines all started running cargo-only flights in March. American Airlines, which had not flown a single all-cargo trip in over three decades, is now flying 140 a week. Germany’s Lufthansa, which has long had a separate cargo business, has converted its Airbus A330 passenger planes for the purpose of transporting goods, the New York Times reports.

Typically businesses and people use air freight shipping for goods that are expensive, perishable, urgently needed, or some combination thereof. Examples include smartphones, automotive parts, seafood, pharmaceuticals and fast fashion. Now medical supplies such as masks, gloves and ventilators have come to dominate air cargo, though as Harald Gloy, COO of Lufthansa Cargo points out, “that’s not saying that the other products or commodities went away.”

While demand for medical supplies continues to sustain demand for cargo space, some fear that demand for other goods could dry up and bring prices down. But for the foreseeable future, airlines will keep operating cargo flights. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) wants governments to expand this activity, calling on them to expedite approvals for all-cargo flights and help airlines with facilities for processing cargo and accommodating crews. As Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the IATA said, air cargo is “the only part [of the airline industry] that is operating and earning revenue at any scale.”

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