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Flying cargo in passenger compartments

Fly High English logo with the word 'activities' beside it


The COVID-19 effect

Think about the following questions and take some notes

  1. How has COVID-19 affected the number of commercial flights taking off each day?
  2. How has that affected the global air cargo market?
  3. What can be done to solve this issue?


Read the following text and answer the questions that follow.

You can also listen to the text as you read if you prefer.

Listen to the text

We are living in extraordinary times. COVID-19, a virus unheard of a couple of months ago, has spread across the world and reduced the flow of planes in the skies to a trickle. Potential travellers are confined to their homes, unable to take their flights. As a result, airlines have been cancelling flights, frequencies and grounding fleets in numbers never seen before.
The flight tracking site FlightRadar tracked 113,000 commercial flights on January 7th. But by April 5th, that number had dropped to just 26,769.

As global passenger traffic plummeted and airlines cancelled flights, this had the knock-on effect of reducing cargo transport by a significant amount. Approximately 50% of the world’s cargo transport moves around the world in the bellies of passenger planes and as these planes have been flying less and less, the amount of cargo capacity has decreased accordingly. This has created issues for businesses and organisations trying to move cargo around the world. With many direct routes between destinations completely absent, some goods have to take an indirect route and sometimes that route may be impossible.

Source: Flightradar24

What are airlines doing about this?

Airlines have taken the unusual step of using regular passenger planes exclusively for cargo flights as a way of boosting cargo shipments while also keeping some planes in the air to generate revenue. Some airlines hadn’t flow a cargo only flight in many years. American Airlines for example, hadn’t flown a ‘cargo only flight’ since 1984 before they flew Dallas Fort Worth to Frankfurt with a 777-300 several times in late March and April. The flight allowed the company to transport medical supplies, post and other cargo for their cargo customers while maintaining a revenue generating service. Other carriers performing similar flights include Delta, United, Air Canada, Aer Lingus, Aeromexico, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, Emirates, Iberia, Korean Airlines, LATAM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Scoot, Swiss and others.

With all of these airlines performing cargo flights with passenger planes, it seems fair to ask how these flights are different to normal passenger flights. For some airlines, they have only used the cargo hold on board the plane to carry cargo. The 777 for example can carry up to 45 tons of cargo in its hold while also operating with passengers on board. Removing the passengers allows the aircraft to carry heavier cargo in the hold. Other airlines however, have decided to use the passenger cabin as well, which allows them to carry even more cargo on board while operating within the structural and weight limitations of the plane. But how do you carry cargo in a passenger cabin?

Lufthansa A330

Cargo in a passenger cabin

As you may imagine, there are various regulations governing how cargo must be carried in cargo hold, all of which are designed to ensure safety while operating such a flight. However, there hasn’t been much need for guidelines on carrying cargo on passenger seats before now, as it generally hasn’t been required. But with the current situation the way it is, airlines have been looking for clarification on regulations regarding the specific placement of cargo on passenger seats.

IATA Guidance

On April 2nd 2020, IATA released guidance on the safe transport of cargo in passenger cabins. IATA states that…

Passenger aircraft are not certified to carry cargo on passenger seats…


The guidance goes on to state that any reconfiguration of the passenger cabin would require…

…formal authorisation from the national aviation authority of the State of the operator.


A risk assessment should also be performed before such a reconfiguration is completed to identify and mitigate hazards and risks. Crew members should be able to access and check all areas of the cabin during the flight to ‘address any possible risk of fire, leakages or other unforeseen circumstances that might occur in the cabin’. IATA also states that a load master should be present to coordinate the loading and unloading of the cargo in such a situation.

IATA recommends that neither dangerous goods nor live animals be loaded into the passenger cabin. In addition, the following areas of the passenger cabin may be used with restrictions;

  • overhead stowage bins
  • closets
  • floor mounted stowage
  • under seat stowage areas

These restrictions include;

  • not exceeding the structural load limits of the floor or seats
  • the use of restraint devices to keep the cargo in place
  • maintaining cargo under seats at a maximum mass of 9kg
  • not placing cargo in toilets or against bulkheads
  • not placing cargo where it might prevent access to emergency equipment
  • not placing cargo where it prevents latched doors closing securely

In relation to placing cargo on passenger seats IATA recommends the following;

  • the mass of the cargo should not exceed the limitation of the seat
  • the cargo should be restrained correctly
  • The centre of gravity (CG) of the cargo is equal to or lower than the passenger CG
  • cargo is appropriately accounted for in the weight and balance system
  • the loading should be distributed across the seat row and it should not exceed 77kg per seat

The guidance then goes on to reference other regulatory guidelines for transporting cargo in passenger cabins, one of which is discussed below.

The FAA Electronic Code of Federal Regulations part 121 governing the transportation of cargo in ‘passenger compartments’ state that cargo can be carried as such in the following ways;

  • in an approved cargo bin that can withstand load factors and emergency landing conditions multiplied by a factor of 1.15
    • this ‘bin’ must be ‘attached to the seat tracks or to the floor structure of the airplane’ and ‘may not impose any load on the floor or other structure of the airplane that exceeds the load limitations of that structure’
      Further restrictions are placed on the material covering of the cargo bin, movement of the cargo during emergency landings and the position of cargo bins in relation to emergency exits.

However, this isn’t what most airlines are doing. They aren’t removing seats and placing cargo bins instead of seats on their planes. That would take time and be a costly exchange. As well as using the cargo hold, these airlines are placing cargo directly on the seats in passenger cabins. So how does that work?

Again in relation to the FAA Electronic Code of Federal Regulations’ guidelines;
Cargo may be carried aft of a bulkhead or divider in any passenger compartment provided the cargo is restrained to the load factors in §25.561(b)(3) and is loaded as follows:

(1) It is properly secured by a safety belt or other tiedown having enough strength to eliminate the possibility of shifting under all normally anticipated flight and ground conditions.

(2) It is packaged or covered in a manner to avoid possible injury to passengers and passenger compartment occupants.

(3) It does not impose any load on seats or the floor structure that exceeds the load limitation for those components.

(4) Its location does not restrict access to or use of any required emergency or regular exit, or of the aisle in the passenger compartment.

(5) Its location does not obscure any passenger’s view of the “seat belt” sign, “no smoking” sign, or required exit sign, unless an auxiliary sign or other approved means for proper notification of the passenger is provided.

Aer Lingus A330


In conclusion, it seems that with airlines looking to avoid costly cabin reconfigurations for cargo transport, carrying cargo in passenger cabins (in addition to in the hold as normal) is something that more companies will look to do. Having a clear set of regulatory guidelines is important for the safe transport of cargo is this way. Especially important is the strict adherence to the structural and load limitations of the plane and the careful and diligent use of restraint devices to prevent movement of the cargo during the flight or an emergency landing.

Language Focus

Look at some of the following vocabulary. Perhaps you know a different form of these words. Do you recognise any part of these words? Often different word forms share very similar spellings. Which forms of these words are listed below as they appear in the text? Are they verb forms? If so which verb form? Are they nouns, adjectives or something else?

  • anticipated
  • components
  • confined
  • eliminate
  • exceeds
  • exclusively
  • fleets
  • guidelines
  • impose
  • indirect
  • mounted
  • restrained
  • restrict
  • revenue
  • shifting
  • structural
  • withstand

Tip: When learning new vocabulary, take a note of the different forms (noun, verb, adjective, adverb etc…) that word has so you can use the correct form when you need it.

Text analysis

Look at the following words in the text and how they are used. What is their purpose in the text? Do they add information, indicate a contrast to follow or something different. Try to establish certain groups of words which have the same purpose.

  • also
  • and
  • as a result
  • as well
  • but
  • however
  • or
  • so
  • while


Summarise the main points presented above. Then imagine you are explaining how cargo should be dealt with on passenger planes to a colleague. Try to explain it in your own words. Record your explanation and then listen to it. Does it make sense to you? If not, go back and change your explanation and recording until you are happy with it.

Further reading

To read IATA’s document mentioned in this article click here and to review the FAS’s guidelines, click here.

If you’d like to start a course with Fly High English, click here to read about what classes and courses are available.

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