Many charter operators are not one-dimensional in their approach and combine their passenger ops with carrying cargo. Passenger charter operators can use freight as a useful additional source of income and this approach has become increasingly important as passenger numbers have declined.
While for many operators freight is never going to be a realistic major source of income – as seen with German operator AirGO and its mono-fleet of executive Avantis – a number of operators, such as Switzerland's Farnair, run separate passenger aircraft as well as dedi-cated freight carriers. Added to this, there is a whole mass of companies that can supply an efficient service for fast transport of time-critical cargo.
One aircraft type that is particularly useful for mixed missions is the Beech King Air series. EBAN spoke to Andrew Lee, formerly of UK-based Jota and now with Oryx Jet, who indicates that the demand for freight is very much driven by time-critical events, as opposed to there being upwards or downwards trends in recent years: “Sometimes if a manufacturer is bringing out a new car, there may be a sudden spike in demand for aircraft charter bringing items from Spain or elsewhere in Europe to the UK plants. Or, at the end of production they may have run out of some items so again there's another spike. I know that Jota were busy last year during the harvesting of crops, providing spares for the farm machinery. So that's seasonal. But I don't know that there's a trend as such,” he says.
Lee also points out the profitability of freight: “If you have a situation where you are flying passengers from the UK into Europe one way, then rather than your aircraft coming back empty, you then as operators can send out availability reports to the charter brokers, and you might get a freight enquiry from a broker in Germany if that's where your aircraft has stopped. You can pick up a freight flight, perhaps back to the UK. So that's all about making good use of the aircraft.
“Freight can avoid empty legs. If there is an opportunity to bring back a box of rubber washers for the automotive industry, then that's making good utilisation and it's cost effective as well.
“I think freight is profitable. There's definitely a market in Europe for the automotive industry, and medical isotopes is big business in Europe as well. There's also things that have a shelf life and have to be moved quickly so there is definitely a market there for those situations. Having that 'go now' response of one hour for freight is still very much needed.”
In many cases operators will have dedicated freight aircraft to call on for these missions. Lee does, however, explain that when these freight carriers are busy, it can be time to put to work an aircraft usually dedicated to passengers: “It's a case of maximising what you can do on your aircraft.”
EBAN also spoke to a selection of operators who combine their passenger operations with freight, in order to find out the factors involved in running mixed missions. A point that frequently emerged was that a significant number of operators run freight as well as passenger operations and do not reconfigure seating between the two types of mission: “All of our passenger fleet has decent interiors and we have no wish to degrade their condition and effect our passenger service levels,” explains Jota md Andy Green. Green does, however, emphasise the important role played by cargo in running a financially efficient operation, because it is usually one-way only and allows Jota to link flights together.
Avanti operator AirGO only accepts cargo which fits in luggage compartments or can be secured in the cabin without damaging the interior of its Piaggio fleet, while Spanish operator Flightline no longer reconfigures its aircraft since obtaining its EMB120; this is exclusively used for passengers, leaving a Metroliner to handle the freight. There are some exceptions though – ProAir of Germany removes seats to make space for its automobile cargo, and likewise African operator Tanzanair has easily removable seats, cargo nets and straps available for freight. More unusually, Walt Air, operating from Sweden, is prone to reconfiguring its King Air 300 and Citation XLS aircraft if the need arises. Both of these aircraft ordinarily have luxury interiors but depending on the size of the load – provided it can fit through the aircraft door – Walt Air will transport it, saying that taking out seats “has not presented any big problem” and that it will fly back to home base before carrying passengers once more.
In order to facilitate a profitable mixture of freight and passenger services, operators place great emphasis on the training of their staff, with specific qualities required for cargo pilots. “The main challenge is mind set, especially that of the crew,” says Jota's Andy Green. “A typical passenger flight will involve hanging around for at least four hours at an FBO. With cargo, it's all about achieving the quickest turnaround. It can be a bit stressful and requires a certain type of pilot. One pilot told me he was waiting as fast as he could. That's us in a nutshell.”
ProAir also highlights the increased flexibility required in a pilot who is operating urgent freight charter when it comes to ground handling. “Minutes count and ProAir is aware of it,” says general manager Andreas Wald.
Freight forwarders and charter brokers are the principal sources of cargo missions, because they understand the job at hand. “It's much easier dealing with brokers, as they understand the interface between ground transport and air transport and the paperwork required,” remarks Green. Tanzanair finds that much of its business comes through mining clients but also cites UK and US brokerage houses as sources of work.
Operators also point out the importance of having a large cabin door through which they can load awkwardly sized packages. Jota's dedicated King Air freighter has a 1.6m door and another King Air model, used as a 'passenger' aircraft in the fleet, can carry cargo in the rear hold, nose locker and wing lockers, allowing it to merge passenger and cargo in a single aircraft.
There has traditionally been a big market for freight in the automotive industry as previously mentioned, and Jota lists this as a significant part of its operations, along with organ transport, as they “basically carry spare parts.” Automotive activities used to occupy around 80 per cent of Farnair's work but nowadays this has been reduced to around 35 per cent. ProAir likewise names the automotive industry as a key element, combined with other time-critical cargo like humanitarian and AOG parts. Flightline still maintains a healthy 60 per cent of its business in cargo missions, with the rest coming from passengers.
It seems that, despite the occasional preconception that passenger travel generates the most profit, there are financial gains to be made by the prudent incorporation of freight missions into an operator's flight schedule.