Cathay Pacific’s passenger ‘preighter’ makes its debut

Boeing 777 takes off for Sydney with cargo secured to cabin floor

There have been two overwhelming requirements on air cargo carriers this year during the ebbs and flows brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic – capacity and flexibility.

As a combination carrier with a dedicated Boeing 747 freighter fleet, Cathay Pacific Cargo has always been able to deliver, but the loss of belly space due to the near-grounding of the passenger fleet has made operations more challenging, especially during sudden peaks in demand. Even with hundreds of cargo-only passenger flights – some with certification from the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department (HKCAD) to operate flights with cargo secured in passenger seats and overhead baggage bins – overall capacity remains limited.

Now, Cathay Pacific has a new option, which debuted earlier this month on a Boeing 777 cargo-only flight to Sydney. Aircraft B-KQQ is one of two B777s in the fleet that have been converted into ‘preighters’, with seats removed in the Economy and Premium Economy cabins to enable us to carry 12 tonnes of additional cargo under extra safety and security measures.

Cargo Products Manager Alex Leung said: ‘Capacity in the air cargo market is still in high demand with the grounding of passenger aircraft, but factories in the Chinese mainland are still running so there is some need for cargo that isn’t being met in the market.’

Australia is one of those demand points. ‘There is a significant demand there because of the reduction in the number of flights, so we looked at this as a solution to increase our cargo capacity,’ said Leung.

The aircraft was modified at the HAECO facility in Xiamen. Seats were removed and modifications made to the seat track to enable cargo to be secured to the floor, as well as markings for the lashing points and bespoke cargo bags.

All changes conformed to Boeing and regulator requirements, which included keeping the front and rear seat rows in place inside each cabin to protect the doors and bulkheads in case cargo shifts during turbulence. But with cargo bags secured across 23 positions in three cabin areas, such an event would be highly unlikely.

B777 Preighter Cathay Pacific Cargo
(From left) Simon Leung & Alex Leung

Cathay Pacific Cargo Standards Policy and Operations Support Manager Simon Leung said: ‘These cargo bags are tailor-made for this project, and it is part of the HKCAD requirement. It’s different to what other carriers are doing, but the bag is made from a fire-retardant material, which meets the compartment interiors requirement and helps keep the cargo shape.’

Each bag is further secured by cargo nets and lashings. To add a further layer of safety, cabin crew are on board to serve as cargo marshals. The team on the inaugural flight was led by ISM (Inflight Services Manager) Gloria Lanorias, accompanied by two cabin crew.

They were all intrigued by the silent passengers. ‘They look well strapped in and as if they are going to be very well behaved,’ Lanorias said. Teams like hers check on the cargo every 20 to 30 minutes during the flight. However, because dangerous and special-handling cargo is not permitted in the cabin, this is mainly an extra safety precaution.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the preighters is in the loading process. With so many innovations involved, it calls for the efforts of a number of teams across the business. In the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal, the team loads AKE containers to replicate the bag positions in the cabin. These are towed aircraft side by ground-handling subsidiary HAS, and unloaded one box at a time into Cathay Pacific Catering Service trucks that rise up to the rear doors of the aircraft. Boxes are then wheeled into the cabin, loaded into cargo bags as per the load plan, and finally zipped and secured by another HAS team.

This is a labour-intensive process, so enough ground time has to be factored in. For the first commercial flight, more ground time was factored in to load the 521 boxes of garments totaling around five tonnes. The more boxes, the longer the load time.

But Simon Leung believes that preighter load times can be brought down to three hours quite comfortably, as on the debut flight. ‘But there is always room for improvement,’ he said.

For now, just two aircraft have been converted into preighters, but as both the year and the pandemic progress, that could change. Alex Leung added: ‘It’s traditionally the peak period, so we will convert more if market demand persists and justifies the operations commercially.’

B777 Preighter first flight Cathay Pacific cabin crew
Captain Mark Chumas (centre) and the cargo marshals
The Hong Kong Airport Services (HAS) team