Chinelo Obogo, [email protected]
COVID-19 pandemic appears to have put global aviation industry on the throes of unprecedented crisis. Many countries including Nigeria have imposed travel restrictions that grounded many aircraft across the world and it is not clear when these curbs will be lifted or under what conditions people will be able to fly again if they’ll want to.
As soon as the news of the COVID-19 virus spread, passenger demand for air travel plummeted. Many of the world’s airlines could be bankrupt by the end of May, according to the International Air Transport Association ( IATA). Already, several of them have collapsed in stronger economies like the US and the UK.
Domestic carriers were hanging on the thread prior to COVID -19 with large percentage of their earnings gulped by expenditure on aviation fuel, aircraft maintenance, aircraft lease payments , aeronautical charges, personnel emoluments and sundry charges , continued lock down occasioned by Corona Virus has exacerbated the woes of indigenous airlines.
Though passenger travel is at an all time low, the transportation of medical supplies and essential services has been on the increase and this has sparked conversation among experts on whether airlines which used to run passenger operations should convert to cargo in order to increase revenue.
Alexandre de Juniac, the Director General of IATA, says that at present, there isn’t enough capacity to meet the demand for air cargo and even though volumes fell by over 15 per cent in March compared to the previous year, capacity plummeted by almost 23 per cent. It says the gap must be addressed quickly as vital medical and essential supplies must get to where they are needed most.
IATA says that for example, there is a doubling of demand for pharmaceutical shipments that are critical to this crisis. With most of the passenger fleet sitting idle, airlines are doing their best to meet demand by adding freighter services, including adapting passenger aircraft to all-cargo activity. But mounting these special operations continues to face bureaucratic hurdles. It is appealing to governments to cut the’ red tape’ needed to approve special flights and ensure safe and efficient facilitation of crew.
However he said that while there is an immediate capacity shortage, the collapsing economy is expected to further depress overall cargo volumes. The World Trade Organisation forecast gives little indication of a quick recovery. The optimistic scenario is for a 13% fall in trade in 2020, while the pessimistic scenario sees a 32% fall in trade in 2020 and this will deeply impact air cargo’s prospects.
Aircraft manufacturer, ATR supports passenger to cargo conversion. On its website, it said since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sourcing and delivering of essential supplies has been one of many logistical challenges. ATR has responded to the needs of its customers and collaborated with external suppliers AKKA and PMV ENGINEERING to come up with a light cargo conversion solution, enabling its customers to quickly convert their ATR passenger aircraft to carry freight.
“Both passenger airlines wishing to carry medical supplies and cargo operators have turned to ATR aircraft, the economics and flexibility of which make it perfect for freight operations. Two solutions are now available to them. Transport medical cargo on passenger seats, restrained with straps or loaded inside seat bags which can be installed in just a few minutes.
The bags and straps are either attached to the seats or fixed to the seat tracks. The second, dubbed “floor-to-floor nets configuration”, consists in removing the aircraft seats and loading shipments directly on the floor, secured with nets attached to the seat tracks.
“Now more than ever, regional aviation plays a key role in transporting essential supplies from the world’s largest cities to remote areas. Airlines have turned to us, asking for a quick solution to allow them to convert passenger into cargo aircraft. We have developed this solution in record time, and are now able to support airlines in unlocking further potential to move even more medical cargo. Depending on the selected configuration, four to five tonnes of payload can be put onboard quickly converted passenger ATR 72 aircraft. With this solution, ATR aircraft all over the world will continue to offer a helping hand to many communities relying on air links to have access to vital medical equipment, medicines, food and other essential supplies,” says Fabrice Vautier, Senior Vice President Commercial, ATR.
Aviation industry consultant and principal partner, Etimfri Group, Amos Akpan, told Daily Sun that cargo moved by road and air are two different business modules. He explained that cargo is added as a revenue product in a scheduled domestic passenger flight not the main product and that we should properly situate our conversation in proper context so that we don’t send the wrong information and signal to investors.
“Air cargo movement by local airline operators is going on as a business. How? The freight agents in our airports collect cargo to various cities in Nigeria. They book space with scheduled domestic passenger flights and put their cargo on them. This way, lots of cargo is moved domestically. Should an airline want to specifically build domestic cargo flight operations as a business unit, it will acquire appropriate aircraft, and set up that business. My advice is for the management to carry out proper feasibility and liaise with Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to adjust its ops specs in the Air Operators Certificate (AOC).
“International cargo flight operations is a different business module. Nigerian airlines were doing well in this business, but the large aircraft like Boeing 747/777 or Airbus 340/380 came to change things. These aircraft are able to carry 300passengers, their baggage, and 50 tons of cargo in one flight. They operate daily flights on all routes. There was need to re-strategise the predominantly cargo freighter flights. The cargo airlines operating freighters became the main stay of logistics chain in terms of size, time and reach. The DC-10, DC-8, B707, B747 Freiters became very useful equipments to DHL, FEDEX, and the cargo divisions of big airlines like Lufthansa cargo, Ethiopian cargo.
“The domestic cargo airlines had been and are still primarily engaged in contract flight charters. They are on contract not scheduled. Their operations are determined largely by the terms of their contract. Check the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) flights, etc. People have argued that there is so much agricultural produce, food, and poultry begging to be moved by air, therefore, domestic airlines should go into it. I urge such persons to do some findings. How much would you pay for a kilo of meat flown by air from Bauchi or Yola to Lagos? What are the freight charges? Movement of agricultural produce and foods has been taken care of by the logistics chain. There are special road vehicles and rail train coaches designed for this all over the world. International movement of produce and fruits are entered into by several other parties and agents, and the airline is just one player in the logistics chain.
“Lastly, people argue that passenger aircraft can be used for cargo flights. Cargo can only be carried in the belly holds of passenger aircraft. One off exemptions to place light weight cargo on the main deck of a passenger aircraft can be given by the appropriate safety oversight institution for emergencies for medical supplies, evacuation of excess baggage, etc. People making this argument should go to department of engineering airworthiness and standards in NCAA. They should ask to be informed of the process it takes to convert a B737 aircraft from passenger version to cargo version. They should also ask to be informed about ops specs in an airline’s AOC. This should clarify the issue of cargo and passenger version.
“Finally, let people take time to interact with the freight agents in our local airports and the ground operations managers of the current domestic operators. It will help them understand the movement of air cargo locally. My caution was on using passenger aircraft to operate cargo flights. The airlines are carrying cargo now. Also, you cannot say cargo moving by road should be moved by air because they two separate modes are two different business modules. Right now, cargo is added as a revenue product in a scheduled domestic passenger flight not the main product. We should properly situate our observations and remarks so that we don’t send the wrong information and signals to investors,” Akpan said.
Group Captain John Ojikutu, an aviation security consultant and secretary of the Aviation Safety Round Table, says domestic airlines can meet with the NCAA for a redefined standard for the use of their passenger aircraft for cargo operations. “Cargo operations are going on at most of our airport and have been going on at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport over 30 year ago. Average cargo traffic national is about 200,0000tons and local cargo traffic is not less than 40,000tons. Whatever problems those involved are having can be looked into and improved.
There are provisions for regulated cargo agents, unfortunately, we have uncontrolled, unregistered and unregulated agents in hundreds at the airports. That is what FAAN would have to seriously look into with the NCAA and the Customs to be able to bring sanity into the operations,” Ojikutu said.
On the calls for the Federal Government to provide bailout funds for the airlines, Ojikutu said: “Which airlines are we talking about? Those who have collected intervention funds and have not paid back and are under the management of AMCON? Or those that have not been in operation for up to four years and have not sufficiently complied with the provisions of the Nig CARs Economic Regulations? The airlines have not helped themselves to sustain their operations just as the NCAA too, over the years, has not been helpful to them and to the nation for neglecting the oversight functions of the economic regulations in particular, over the operators, both private and public.”