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As COVID-19 grounded passenger flights, airlines responded to the resulting cargo capacity crunch by adapting their passenger aircraft to operate as preighters. However, while some fine-tuning of lease agreements may be seen in the future to allow for greater operational flexibility, significant lease modifications to account for preighter operations seem unlikely.
The cargo capacity crunch
As COVID-19 travel restrictions forced airlines to ground many passenger flights, demand for cargo remained high.
However, because belly cargo (that is, cargo carried in the belly of a passenger aircraft) accounted for almost two-thirds of total international cargo capacity pre-pandemic, grounding passenger flights also had a significant impact on cargo capacity.
According to IATA’s Air Cargo Market Analysis, by March 2020, international belly cargo capacity had declined by 43.7 percent on a year-on-year basis. Even in June 2021, despite the first signs of international passenger travel restarting, international belly cargo capacity was still 38.9 percent below June 2019 values.
Step up the preighter
In response to this capacity crunch, and in order to continue generating some cargo-driven revenues, airlines started adapting their operations by repurposing the passenger compartments of their passenger aircraft to carry more cargo.
And so, the “preighter” was born.
Unlike a full conversion to cargo configuration, repurposing a passenger compartment to carry cargo in a preighter is a temporary solution. Broadly speaking, this involves:
- Storing cargo on and between seats and in overhead bins;
- Storing cargo in specific seat containers or seat bags; or
- Removing the passenger seats and securing the cargo to the passenger compartment floor.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has caused airlines to adapt their operations, giving rise to the ‘preighter’
- Technical, regulatory, and contractual considerations determine whether an airline can operate a passenger aircraft as a preighter
- Significant lease modifications to account for preighter operations seem unlikely