Loading passenger flights’ bellies for greater cargo capacity

Belly capacities are being utilised to improve the air cargo efficiency due to various global economic crises and slowdown. However, belly capacity alone will not provide the full capacity needed to achieve India’s economic growth targets. Over the past three years, domestic demand has increased, fuelled by rise in e-commerce activity, resulting in utilisation of belly capacity, which is steadily increasing, say industry experts.

Ritika Arora Bhola

The post-COVID scenario saw an incessant surge in volumes, especially pharmaceuticals and perishables, followed by a rise in demand for express cargo, and consumer durables. To meet the demand, the airlines worldwide geared up fully to load the volumes to utilise the belly space—passenger aircraft converted into P2Fs. Narrowbody and wide-body freighters were loaded and packed with variety of cargo. In India, domestic demand increased incredibly fuelled by rise in e-commerce activity. Several dedicated freighters were launched to improve the operational efficiency and EoDB. Quikjet Cargo, Pradhaan Air Express, IndiGo freighter are few examples. Quikjet has cargo aircraft Boeing 737-800 BCF based in Delhi and Hyderabad. Other airlines such as Air India, SpiceJet, Vistara do not have dedicated freighters, therefore, the cargo is carried in the huge bellies of the passenger aircraft.

Experts told that operating dedicated freighters in the Indian market is an expensive affair—narrowbody freighters are best suited here, considering their capacity. In 2023, Air India had placed orders for 470 aircraft from Airbus and Boeing at US$70 billion. Its Boeing aircraft order for 220 aircraft comprised 190 Boeing 737MAX narrowbody planes, 20 Boeing 787 Dreamliners and 10 Boeing 777Xs. IndiGo had also placed an order for 500 Airbus A320 Family aircraft. Akasa Air ordered 150 aircraft to expand its presence in India’s growing civil aviation/air cargo market. Akasa Air had placed an order for 150 Boeing 737 Max planes comprising 737 Max 10 and 737 Max 8-200 jets.

Belly capacities are being utilised efficiently to improve the air cargo efficiency. Due to various global economic crises and slowdown, capacity has seen constant fluctuations, but in the coming years the air cargo capacity will come back to normal, experts forecast.

Stating about the ‘space availability in belly to move cargo,’ Abhishek Goyal, Executive Director, Aeroprime Group, said, “Indian carriers are increasingly exploring the full potential of belly space by accommodating perishables, pharma, e-commerce, and general cargo. This is facilitated by the ability of modern aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, which offer belly space alongside passenger loads. Usage of cargo in belly space is enhanced by logistics planning and cargo handling systems that allow the airlines to maximise load factors, optimise fuel efficiency, and reduce carbon footprint per unit of cargo.”

“Narrowbody aircraft such as B737 or A321 offer between one and four tonnes of cargo capacity on the lower deck, depending on aircraft version, flight route, passenger load factor and the nature of cargo. With one to 1.5 tonnes being the norm, mid-sized passenger aircraft such as the B757 may offer between two and eight tonnes of cargo capacity on the lower deck, depending on aircraft version, flight route, passenger load factor and the nature of cargo. Wide-bodied passenger aircraft such as the A330, A350, B777, B787 vary depending on passenger load factors, wind direction, route, flight duration and type of cargo carried. But A330 could be between 10 and 12 tonnes, an A350 could be around 17 tonnes, but up to 25 tonnes in the 1,000 variant, a B787 could be around 14 tonnes and a B777 between 20 and 25 tonnes depending on variant,” Glyn Hughes, Director General, TIACA, said.

“The availability of space for cargo is based on the passenger loads and the capability of the aircraft. Wide-bodied aircraft has an advantage over narrowbodies in catering to the demand for skidded and cool chain supported units. Freighters play a wider role due to the capability of carrying cargo that is oversized or restricted from being carried on passenger aircraft. Commodities such as perishables, courier, pharmaceuticals (active and passive) and general cargo are carried using the lower deck capacity. We experience year-round traffic to carry perishables to hyper markets in the Middle East and South Asia, while courier has seen a growth in the recent times into Europe mainly United Kingdom,” Chaminda Perera, Head, Cargo, SriLankan Cargo, shared.

“For passenger aircraft, utilisation of belly capacity for ferrying cargo provides a source of additional revenue. However, the space could be limited, as passenger bags also need to be accommodated. Typically, airlines offer 15 kgs of baggage per passenger in the domestic sector. Therefore, for carrying 200 passengers, belly cargo capacity will reduce by 3,000 kgs. For freighters, it is all about enhancing the main deck capacity utilisation. Depending on aircraft type, belly capacity for both pax and cargo aircraft, capacity could range up to 6 tonnes for a narrow body. “Indian airlines have been making efforts to improve cargo efficiency, the results of which are evident in the growth. Over the past three years, utilisation of belly capacity in India has demonstrated a steady increase, with figures steadily improving from 75.6 per cent in 2020-21 to 79.5 per cent in the financial years 2021-22, and 81.5 per cent in 2022-23,” Capt. Nikhil B. Ved, Managing Director, Blue Dart Aviation, affirmed.

“Belly space depends on the type of aircraft and routing. Generally, a narrowbody aircraft can carry around two to three tonnes of cargo, while wide-body aircraft can carry between 10 to 15 tonnes. At the same time, freighters can carry up to 100 tonnes,” Dipen Lalsodagar, Deputy Director, Cargo Sales, Global Aviation Services, commented.

“Etihad Cargo’s fleet comprises four Airbus A380s with a maximum capacity of 15,000 kgs each, five Airbus A350s with a maximum capacity of 24,000 kgs each, 22 Airbus A320s, nine Boeing 777s with a maximum capacity of 24,000 kgs each, and 43 Boeing 787s with a maximum capacity of 22,000 kgs each. We also operate five of the latest generation of Boeing 777 freighters, each with a capacity of 102,800 kgs, which we use to add capacity to our network to fill up the aircraft, achieving a throughput load factor on the belly of above 90 per cent. As much as 60 per cent of the cargo Etihad Cargo flies is through the belly of aircraft, with belly capacity allowing us to generate multiple frequencies per destination. Etihad Cargo’s belly network will continue to grow with the integration of additional aircraft, further complemented by the integration of the new-generation Airbus 350 freighter in the second half of 2026. India is as much a strategic market for Etihad Cargo, which offers a combination of multi-frequency wide-body, narrowbody and freighter flights. Etihad Cargo is present in 11 stations in India, with Jaipur being our most recent Indian network addition. India is increasingly attracting firms that are shifting their factories to the country, signalling a future need for expanded capacity. Currently, India benefits from a robust supply of cargo capacity, supported by passenger and cargo demand, Stanislas Brun, Vice President Cargo, Etihad Cargo, said.

With such a diverse geography and large population centres connected by a growing network of passenger operations, it is crucial the available belly capacity is used effectively to enhance trade within and to and from the country.

This is the situation today with cargo benefitting from and extensive passenger operations. However, belly capacity alone will not provide the full capacity needed to achieve India’s growth targets. Therefore, freighter networks are crucial for connecting to global high volume cargo hubs for providing the much-needed cargo capacity on developing passenger routes.

“In India, airlines are leveraging the belly capacity of passenger aircraft to augment air cargo efficiency, addressing the booming demand for air freight amidst fluctuating global supply chain dynamics. The belly space is particularly valuable for transporting goods on routes already served by regular passenger flights, offering a cost-effective solution without the need for dedicated cargo flights,” Goyal averred.

According to Perera, “The cargo demand is usually westbound and there is always a directional imbalance in demand. In this context, the capacity towards east is not constrained as it is towards the west. The yields also follow a similar pattern. The demand for air freight from certain regions in India are high. However, the demand is not always met depending on the type of air cargo originating from certain regions.”

“The domestic cargo figures are improving YoY. Despite shortage of aircrafts, there is huge demand for e-commerce, which is maximising the domestic cargo capacity. There is a surge of global bonded cargo movement. On international cargo front, airlines, besides their own cargo sales, also vie for interline business, transshipments among others in a bid to maximise their capacity. Freighters focus on special cargo,” Lalsodagar said. Virgin Atlantic Cargo operates its services via a fleet of passenger aircraft, meaning our cargo travels within belly capacity. We maximise uplift across our route network by utilising our fleet and ensuring the correct mix of cargo. We collaborate with our operations, sales, and customer teams to enable us to maximise our uplift across our route network, a Virgin Atlantic Airways spokesperson said.

“We do this by utilising our fleet and ensuring the correct mix of cargo. The airline operates one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in the skies—we have reduced absolute carbon emissions by 35 per cent over the last decade. In October 2022, Virgin Atlantic welcomed the first of 16 A330-900neos to the fleet, continuing its transformation towards cent per cent next generation aircraft by 2027, the spokesperson said.

The country0, with its growing economy, extensive manufacturing, and e-commerce sectors, generates cargo volumes that can utilise the available capacity of passenger aircraft, converted freighters (P2Fs), and narrowbody freighters. India’s cargo industry has not only rebounded but has also expanded post-COVID. The increase in demand across pharma, perishables, automotive components, and electronic goods continue to drive the need for enhanced cargo capacity.

“P2F conversions have become relevant as they bridge the gap between the demand for cargo space and the underutilisation of ageing passenger fleets. Narrowbody freighters, converted from passenger aircraft, such as Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, are suited for short to medium-haul routes. They are used in domestic and regional cargo operations. These aircraft are capable of operating across its tier II and III cities,” Goyal asserted.

“The country is a market that moves 3.5 million tonnes of air cargo and has set a target of 10 million tonnes by 2030. As a result of the passenger boom experienced in the post-COVID, operation of passenger aircraft was increased. Therefore, capacity was passively induced to the market.

Despite such cargo capacity in the market, there are specific cargo sectors that require freighter capacity, which have been supported by a couple of P2F operators. With such ambitious targets, we will be able to witness an increase in freighter operations out of India. We have experienced over the past year that most airlines have introduced capacity using passenger operations to Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Chennai,” Perera said.

“Passenger and freighter networks are back to pre-COVID levels. So air cargo capacity is currently available in sufficient volumes. However, with e-commerce growing at 20 per cent a year, the cargo capacity will eventually come in short supply. As India’s manufacturing sector continues to develop and the target of a US$5 trillion economy would galvanise additional investment, the target of moving 10 million tonnes of air cargo will require significant fleet growth,” Hughes said.

“The Indian cargo industry has witnessed significant growth in recent years, driven by various factors such as e-commerce expansion, pharmaceutical exports, and increased demand for perishables,” Capt. Ved shared.

From 2012-13 to 2022-23, domestic cargo traffic grew at a rate of 4.4 per cent CAGR, indicating a steady expansion in the movement of goods. In contrast, international cargo traffic experienced a growth rate of 2.1 per cent CAGR over the same period. In the domestic sector, a total of 6.98 lakh metric tonnes were transported, marking a significant increase of 15.3 per cent compared to the previous fiscal year (2021-2022).

Meanwhile, in the international arena, transportation amounted to 15.29 lakh metric tonnes, showing a more moderate growth rate of 7.2 per cent compared to the preceding year. Current statistics indicate that cargo loads have already crossed pre-pandemic levels.

Given the expected hike in fleet size by passenger airlines, cargo capacity will continue to grow and stay ahead of demand. For future growth, what will be important—a keen focus on industry wide collaboration to ensure how that demand is met globally and to tier II and III cities. “With the focus of the government on manufacturing and exports, we may see higher demand for cargo. Industry players remain optimistic about the long-term growth prospects for air cargo, driven by factors such as increasing trade volumes, supply chain diversification, and the adoption of digital technologies,” he added.

“Currently, 80 to 85 per cent of the total cargo capacity is being utilised. However, the maximum space utilisation of belly capacity is on India-European Union route and its because of the Red Sea crisis and transshipments coming from neighbouring countries. Before COVID, capacity utilisation was around 65 to 70 per cent as most of the air cargo was of India origin. The overall demand is still on its peak, but we do not expect normalcy in shipping industry, airlines will maximise the belly at least till the year-end,” Lalsodagar assumed.

“We have seen an increased demand for cargo across India due to the constraint in ocean freight capacity. Earlier this year, the airline launched the fourth daily service to India complementing its long-established double daily services between London Heathrow and Delhi and daily flights to Mumbai, which supports the increased demand,” Virgin Atlantic stated.

The global air cargo demand to and from India has increased in the past few years thanks to rising e-commerce and express business. Increased pharmaceuticals, perishable transportation, and increase in transhipment cargo flow, airlines rely on India for additional capacity and services.

“We help our partner airlines to generate incremental revenues from Indian cargo operations. Cargo includes pharma, automotive parts, textiles, perishables, electronics, machinery and the like. We specialise in pharma and a significant portion comprises temperature-sensitive medical supplies, vaccines, and generic drugs, which require high standards of handling and care,” Goyal said.

“Equipped with six Boeing 757s and two Boeing 737 freighters along with dedicated warehouse facilities, we operate a network spanning across eight metropolitan centres. On customer demand, we operate to sectors outside our network domestically and globally. We specialise in providing express logistics solutions tailored to meet the time-sensitive needs of customers. We offer door-to-door pickup and delivery services, shortest transit times, and real-time tracking capabilities to ensure swift and secure transportation of goods. Our operations cater to a wide range of industries, including banking, e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, automotive, electronics, among others. We transport a variety of cargo, including parcels, documents, temperature-sensitive goods, high-value commodities, and oversized cargo,” Capt. Ved said.

“Besides regular cargo transportation, we served the country in transporting medical equipment during COVID (domestic and international) with the assistance of Union Ministry of Civil Aviation. In addition, Blue Dart Aviation also supports India during times of natural disasters by providing transportation of relief material to disaster struck zones,” he added.

“SriLankan Cargo operates daily flights to India and over 50 weekly flights. We serve nine points, including Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, covering both the northern and southern regions. We contribute to the Indian air freight market by carrying pharma, couriers, and general cargo out of India and e-commerce into India for the northern and central Indian markets, while uplifting perishables out of the southern region. We see that there is a greater demand for perishables from southern Indian points to Europe and North America. However, capacity for the mentioned points is constrained,” Perera informed.

The spokesperson said, Virgin Atlantic Cargo transports a variety of products across the region, including e-commerce, perishables, and pharma. From 2025 Virgin Atlantic Cargo will have 42.1 million kg of space available on routes to and from India increasing capacity by 336.4 per cent vs. 2019. The addition of the recently launched Bengaluru flights will boost belly space by 38.7 per cent in 2025 compared to 2023 capacity, with 20 tonnes available on each flight. This presents new opportunities to export and import goods such as fresh produce, pharma, and textiles between prime markets in the UK, the USA, and India.

The Indian cargo fleet includes narrowbodies and wide-body freighters. Narrowbody freighters such as Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families are suited to India’s domestic and regional cargo markets due to their operational efficiency and ability to access smaller airports with shorter runways.

“These aircraft are ideal for the frequent, shorter routes that characterise much of India’s internal trade networks. The existing fleet is not adequate to meet current market demands, especially with the continued economic growth and the expansion of global trade. India would need more freighters to support the growth. The decision for expanding freighters depends largely on anticipated market growth patterns, infrastructural developments, and evolving global trade relationships. Thus, continuous assessment and proactive fleet management are crucial to ensure capacity aligns with demand in the short and long term,” Goyal said.

“India has seen a balanced growth of passenger belly and freighter capacity. During COVID, there was a tremendous growth of P2F aircraft and freighters. As air freight demand increases, more freighters will operate to/from India. The airlines have increased wide-body freighter operations, but recent trends show many GSSAs and forwarders are chartering narrowbodies. Indian carriers have placed huge orders of passenger aircrafts, and next 10 years will see a massive increase in belly capacity. Freighters will be equally in demand as the country has fixed a target of 10 million tonnes by 2030,” Lalsodagar averred.

“With efforts to increase manufacturing capabilities, we expect the numbers of freighters to rise gradually. As per current statistics, there are a total of 717 aircraft, of which 16 are freighters, and the remaining 701 are passenger aircraft offering belly capacity. The decision to have a wide-body or narrowbody freighters will be driven by market demand, destinations to be served, financials and aircraft availability. Narrowbodies are most suited for operations to domestic and neighbouring countries due to their versatility, while wide-body aircraft would be required to serve European, American, or Far East, and Asia Pacific destinations,” Nikhil felt.

“As a cargo man, I will be biased if I say wide-bodied aircraft are more suitable. There are routes that can be sufficiently served by narrowbodied aircraft as well. Economics will work only if we deploy the right capacity. For example, Mumbai is a market that requires the capacity of wide-bodied aircraft, followed by Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai. Ahmedabad is another city where the cargo demand tends to grow rapidly. The country boasts strong domestic air and trucking networks, which decreases the demand for cargo,” Perera said.

“As the cargo demand grows with economic expansion, fleet and capacity growth need to align to ensure efficient and accessible cargo capacity is available. So going forward, the orders of the passenger aircraft by the Indian carriers will ensure a sizeable addition to the belly space. But same is not the situation for the freighters with limited numbers expected to be delivered. It means that there will be a continued reliance on the foreign freighters to serve the Indian market requirements. This brings an additional risk as those aircraft could be redeployed in other markets if more favourable conditions prevail elsewhere,” Hughes said.