INNOVATION remains the difference between those air cargo businesses that just want to survive the pandemic – and those that will thrive and prosper, writes Thelma Etim.

An example is Air France/KLM Martinair (AFKLMP) Cargo which, like so many leading carriers, made the decision to switch from flying people in its passenger aircraft cabins to instead carrying vital medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) strapped into empty seats.

Having now retired its final three KLM B747 Combis, the airline wasted no time in partnering with freight equipment supplier Trip & Co to create bespoke Cargo Seat Bags (CSBs) for its B777-200/300, B787-10 and A330-200 passenger aircraft fleet.

The easy-to-install and remove CSBs, the design of which KLM’s own Cargo-in-Cabin (CiC) project team was instrumental, have now been formally submitted to the Dutch Civil Aviation Authority for approval and authorisation under European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations.

“These bags not only protect the [cabin] interior, but also double the loading capacity on the seats, reduce physical strain during handling and prevent plastic [seat coverings] waste,” explains a statement. “This just-in-time operation meets the need for extra cargo capacity for medical equipment, including PPE and vaccine [related] equipment.”

KLM received its first set of 172 CSBs adapted for single, double, and triple-seat layouts in the first week of this month and undertook its first operational flight using them on 13 April, transporting some 10 tonnes of medical supplies and COVID-19 test kits from Shanghai to Amsterdam.

Ton Veltman, project manager of the KLM Cargo CIC team, enthuses: “It remains extremely inspiring for me to be part of the close-knit team working on Cargo in Cabin. We have been active for over a year now, with involvement throughout KLM and including our partner Trip & Co.

“By doubling this cabin capacity on our B777s, we now have capacity similar to what we had on our B747 [cabins]. I’m proud of the many KLM colleagues who have made this innovation happen and of the smart and exceptional product that we developed and delivered with them and Trip & Co. This is an example of creativity and perseverance that will be key in the years to come,” he adds.

Edwin de Jongh, chief commercial officer of Trip & Co, adds: “Our joint effort has resulted in a flexible, easy-to-use, lightweight solution that gives the airline an opportunity to offer extra cargo capacity in the passenger cabins and avoid having to convert the cabin permanently.

“It reminds me of the quick-change [convertible aircraft] solution of the 1970s when, within an hour, the cabin was transformed from ‘cargo’ to a place ready to welcome passengers for a comfortable flight.”

This latest development shows that the carrier recognises that what was initially a temporary measure in response to the global demand for PPE and medical supplies has now become a common occurrence amongst airlines. It is likely to be a permanent fixture for the foreseeable future, until international passenger travel fully recovers, which is unlikely to be any time soon given the latest figures collected by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Total passenger demand for air travel in February of this year, measured in revenue-passenger-kilometres (RPKs), was down by 74.7 per cent – worse than the 72.2 per cent decline in January versus two years ago. International passenger numbers fell 88.7 per cent below February 2019, a further drop from the 85.7 per cent year-to-year decline recorded in January and the worst growth outcome since July 2020. “Performance in all regions worsened compared to January 2021,” the airline body reports.

These disastrous figures prompted Willie Walsh, IATA’s new director general, to warn: “February showed no indication of a recovery in demand for international air travel. In fact, most indicators went in the wrong direction as travel restrictions tightened in the face of continuing concerns over new Coronavirus variants.

“An important exception was the Australian domestic market. A relaxation of restrictions on domestic flying [there] resulted in significantly more travel. This tells us that people have not lost their desire to travel. They will fly, provided they can do so without facing quarantine measures,” Walsh adds.

The bleak figures are in stark contrast to the buoyant recovery of demand in global air cargo markets. February data shows airfreight demand has continued to outperform pre-COVID-19 levels. “Volumes have now returned to 2018 levels seen prior to the US-China trade war,” states IATA.

Global demand, measured in cargo-tonne-kilometres (CTKs), rose by nine per cent in comparison with February 2019 and was up by 1.5 per cent on January. All regions except for Latin America – which reported a decline of 20.5 per cent in international cargo volumes – saw an improvement in airfreight demand compared with pre-pandemic levels.

North American carriers, which posted a 17.4 per cent increase in international demand, and African airlines, which enjoyed an immense 44.2 per cent hike, were the strongest performers in the period.

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