Short on passengers, airline plans more cargo-only flights

American Airlines plans to more than double its cargo-only flights in September, putting some of its underutilized planes to use during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fort Worth-based American said it will increase to 32 cargo-only routes during the month totaling more than 1,000 flights. American has been steadily increasing its cargo-only deliveries since March, when it launched the flights for the first time in decades. So far, the company has moved about 45 million tons of goods, often to overseas destinations such as Shanghai and Frankfurt, Germany.

Combined with passenger flights on widebody jets that carry cargo, American will fly about 2,200 cargo flights in September.

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“We didn’t have a playbook. We’d never done this before,” said Maulin Vakil, American’s director of cargo customer care, in a statement. “We began to explore how much cargo we could take if we couldn’t transport passengers.”

Before the pandemic, American Airlines hadn’t run a cargo-only flight since 1984.

The increase in cargo-only flights includes daily trips from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to foreign destinations such as Beijing, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid. There are also cargo-only flights from Dallas/Fort Worth to Rome and Dublin that operate twice a week.

American is running 14 cargo-only domestic flights, including several from Dallas/Fort Worth to Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Kahului in Hawaii. All of the cargo-only flights will be on American’s widebody Boeing 777 and 787 jets.

Cargo traffic only goes so far to help American recover from dismal traffic numbers. That’s because airlines are actually losing cargo revenue. Despite hundreds of cargo-only flights between April and June, American’s cargo revenue dropped by 41% in the second quarter.

That’s because those normal passenger flights are often loading up with cargo, such as U.S. mail and other shipments.

It’s not a problem specific to American.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics said international air cargo shipments were down 5% in June compared with the year before. The drop was the biggest in flights between the U.S. and Europe. Most travel between the U.S. and Europe has been shut down by a combination of government restrictions and a lack of demand from consumers.

American is only running about half the flights it did a year ago as passengers are still skeptical about flying, major tourist attractions remain closed and companies are reluctant to send employees on business trips.

American’s passenger revenue was down 89.9% in the second quarter. Numbers from the Transportation Security Administration show that passenger counts through airport checkpoints are down 66% from a year ago.

Cargo revenue helps, but not enough to make up for the losses. American’s cargo revenue totaled $863 million in 2019, compared with more than $42 billion in passenger revenue.

“We had to build all of this out and coordinate how it flows with our scheduled passenger service because, well, we’re a passenger airline,” said Tom Howard, a manager at American’s Integrated Operations Center, in a statement.

American is doing everything it can to cut costs and use its parked airplanes as the pandemic stretches into its sixth month, officials said.

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