Why do Austrian Airlines passenger planes now mainly transport freight? What is necessary and how do you plan such flights? Find out more!
In order to carry out cargo flights with passenger planes, we need a system of elements that fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
The "New" Austrian Airlines Cargo Flights
In our interviews concerning Austrian Airlines repatriation flights and parked aircraft, we have already learned that the COVID-19 crisis demands a great deal of flexibility, especially from the aviation industry. Since 21 March 2020, however, some of the Austrian passenger aircraft have been assigned a new function: within a very short time, an airlift between Austria and Asia has been established to transport basic medical equipment to Europe. From protective masks and latex gloves to protective suits - the transported equipment is urgently needed at various locations in Austria and Europe. For example in various hospitals, but also in supermarkets and for retail. But what does a typical cargo transport in a passenger aircraft look like? What kind of precautions are necessary? And how do you plan such flights? Marc Lucas, Austrian Airlines Vice President Operations Planning & Steering, tells us in an interview.
First things first: what are your main tasks at Austrian Airlines?
Main Tasks as Austrian Airlines Vice President Operations Planning & Steering
In my role as Vice President Operations Planning & Steering at Austrian Airlines, I am primarily responsible for ensuring the most efficient planning and deployment of our flights within the Austrian Airlines Operations Team. In terms of planning, this includes responsibility for long-term crew capacity planning for the cockpit and cabin as well as the monthly roster planning of our crews.
The more operational short-term and controlling part of my function, on the other hand, includes the responsibility for short-term crew disposition, our Navigation and Dispatch Office, which enables the safe and efficient planning of our flights, and the Operations Control Center and Hub Control Center, which controls the entire ongoing flight operations on a daily basis with a view to achieving maximum reliability, punctuality and passenger satisfaction.
Since mid-March 2020, I have been temporarily responsible for the coordination of cargo flights on our passenger aircraft. I am part of a highly motivated team of colleagues and experts without whom this unbelievably great and joint achievement would not be possible.
So now Austrian Airlines passenger planes are also transporting freight?
Austrian Airlines Passenger Aircraft in Use for Cargo Flights
Yes and no. In "normal times", even up to 60% of the freight transported worldwide is carried in the bellies of passenger planes. So the transport of cargo on passenger flights is actually nothing new. What is new, on the other hand, is that a large part of the world's air traffic has been shut down as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, there is a large and short-term demand for Personal Protection Equipment worldwide, known in brief as PPE, i.e. latex gloves, protective masks and protective suits.
These productions from Asia cannot be transported fast enough due to the limited availability of freight capacity. We have therefore decided to make our passenger planes available for cargo in order to transport the important medical articles to Austria and the European Union quickly and pragmatically.
Our planning experts are working in the background to make these flights possible. Our crews have to be scheduled, entry formalities and visas have to be prepared, flight schedules and routes need to be planned and we need the corresponding route and overflight rights. Every flight is handmade due to many special features, we can now speak of a cargo flight manufactory!
How does a typical cargo flight at Austrian Airlines proceed?
Typical Cargo Transport in an Austrian Airlines Passenger Aircraft
A large part of the goods is stowed within the hold of the aircraft. As our cargo is particularly critical, we have also obtained a permit for transport in the passenger cabin. Because these medical protective items are relatively light, we can stow them on our seats. Depending on the size and weight of the packaging, we can also stow them under the seats and in the so-called "overhead bins", where hand luggage is normally stored.
It is always important to ensure a secure fastening, so that the goods cannot "fly around" in the cabin in case of turbulences. The fastening happens, for example, through cargo nets that are attached to the seat rails and on which the seats themselves also find a firm hold. As always, "Safety First" applies. We also use fire-resistant blankets to protect our expensive passenger seats from dirt and abrasion. Our high-quality Business Class seats, on the other hand, are not loaded with freight. And finally, of course, there are our "Prachters", i.e. passenger aircraft on which the seats are removed to be able to transport even more freight. In German, "Prachter" is a mixture of the words passenger aircraft and cargo aircraft.
What does the conversion of a passenger aircraft look like?
Conversion of a passenger aircraft into a cargo aircraft
The general conversion of a passenger aircraft is relatively simple. The seats are removed by our mechanics. But as the seats are also wired, mainly for the in-flight entertainment system, the corresponding connections need to be removed as well. The general conversion of an airplane takes only a few days, about 500 hours of work. However, the formal effort of a conversion is often underestimated.
Thus, the corresponding work has to be prepared and licensed by the Austrian Technik team. Our colleagues from Operations Engineering then calculate, for example, the maximum and possible load in the sections of the aircraft and then formulate, together with our colleagues from Ground Operations, the procedures that must be taken into account when loading the cabin. All these changes need to be formally requested and approved by the supervisory authorities. We are constantly and competently supported and advised by our colleagues from Operations Safety. Through the interaction of all those parties involved and the meshing of all gears, we can thus guarantee the greatest possible safety for our aircraft and crews.
And what happens to the removed seats?
The Removed Seats of Austrian Airlines
The seats are stored safely and securely after removal. At the moment, the seats of two Boeing B777-200 aircraft were removed, but the seats will have to be reinstalled as soon as the aircraft is ready to fly again as a passenger aircraft. The reinstallation of the seats is, by the way, much more complex than the removal. Everything has to be put back in its place and the seats have to be wired. In addition, each seat will be tested individually, i.e. for safety and all functions such as the entertainment programme.
Last but not least: who's on a cargo flight?
Staff at Austrian Airlines Cargo Flights
On the routes to Asia, we usually fly with an extended crew due to the length of the flight, i.e. there are three pilots in the cockpit, who rotate during the different phases of the flight. We always have a so-called "loadmaster", who ensures that all goods find their correct place and that all loading procedures are followed correctly. Loading passenger seats or entire main decks with goods is after all a special procedure for which experience and routine are certainly useful.
Depending on the destination airport, we also have a technician on board. And although we have no passengers on board, our flights are accompanied by flight attendants. Cargo and cabin need to be checked at regular intervals during the flight. During these checks, the colleagues also implement fire protection measures and verify that the cargo is still properly stored. Altogether, the crew members ensure that our cargo flights are carried out safely at the highest level.
Thank you, Marc, for the look behind the scenes of the Austrian Airlines cargo flights during the COVID-19 crisis. All the best to you and stay safe!
An unbelievable logistical and planning masterpiece, which nobody would have thought we were capable of making possible.