With few passengers, Delta gets FAA approval to carry cargo in cabin

Delta cargo. Source: Delta Air Lines

Delta cargo. Source: Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines says it is the first U.S. carrier to get federal clearance to carry cargo in its overhead bins, as it repurposes passenger planes amid a steep decline in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Atlanta-based Delta said it has received Federal Aviation Administration approval to use the overhead bin space of wide-body jets for cargo, boosting capacity on the airline's new cargo-only flights.

It’s not a simple as just stacking cargo wherever there’s empty space in the cabin. The FAA regulates such matters because there are a number of logistical and safety considerations, such as weight shifts, which can lead to crashes.

The airline also wants to explore ways to carry more goods in the cabin, including by removing seats, as the company prepares for a lengthy slump in travel. That, too, may require FAA approval.

During a call with analysts, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said, “We believe it could be up to three years before we see a sustainable recovery” in travel.

“Whether it’s two years or three years or four years is anyone’s guess,” he said.

The carrier briefly had a fleet of Boeing 747 cargo jets through its acquisition of Northwest Airlines, but shut down the freighter business in 2009.

Now, Delta is cutting 85% of its flight schedule and has hundreds of unused passenger planes.

With airlines suspending nearly all of their passenger flights to Asia, Chinese suppliers that have restarted production are looking for more ways to get their goods to the United States, according to Delta.

In response, Delta this month launched cargo-only service on Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 passenger planes. The planes carry medical equipment and other goods from Asia to Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles, which the company says helps to keep supply chain lines open during the pandemic.

The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month told airlines they can seek to use passenger planes to carry cargo only.

“It is an extraordinary situation, however, for an entire passenger cabin to be loaded with cargo,” the FAA document says. “Passenger cabins are not designed for an all-cargo configuration.”

If cargo shifts during a flight and causes a weight imbalance, it can lead to a crash. Airlines also need to ensure cargo doesn’t damage cabin fixtures, or exceed the strength limits of floors, overhead bins and compartments.

And, there are no smoke detection systems in passenger cabins, other than in lavatories. As a result, airlines may need trained employees in the cabin to detect and respond to any smoke or fire, and to have protective breathing equipment.

As airlines around the world seek to carry more cargo amid the travel slump, the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association also issued guidance to airlines this month for passenger planes transporting cargo and mail.

Potential hazards include cargo leaks or spills and safety risks to workers loading cargo through cabin doors, according to IATA, which also recommends airlines isolate entertainment systems, seat power systems and other devices that might generate heat in the cabin.