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As the COVID-19 pandemic severely weakens travel demand, damaged airlines are speeding up efforts to recondition unused passenger planes into cargo carriers.

Growing demand for distribution of emergency supplies, such as face masks, around the globe is also prompting aviation firms to make such moves, with some flights temporarily seeing freight unit prices more than 2½ times previous levels.

Japan Airlines Co. plans to run approximately 1,200 flights between March to May to mainly East Asia, Europe and the United States as international cargoes, as they were and will be suspended as passenger flights. According to the company, passengers’ luggage accounts for about 30 percent of the cargo area available on a plane when it carries the maximum number of passengers. The space remaining is typically used for carrying various merchandise.

Similarly, All Nippon Airways Co. has operated more than 300 cargo flights this April to China and other countries using its passenger aircraft. Both JAL and ANA are loading freight onto carry-on luggage racks.

In a different approach, Air Canada has announced a policy to convert three Boeing 777 passenger airplanes into freighters by removing 422 seats to increase loading capacity.

According to the Tokyo customs authority, the volume of freight handled at Narita Airport in March was 188,000 tons — an increase of 2.3 percent from volumes in the same month last year. The number of flights operated by Narita-based Nippon Cargo Airlines increased to 475 in March, 17 of which were temporary flights to Hong Kong and Shanghai, up from 414 in March last year.

“We are unable to accept all reservations, as some flights are seeing excessive demand,” explains an official at the company.

The disruption of the supply chain is also believed to be boosting air cargo demand, compounding the issue.

An official working at an Indonesian branch of a Japanese trading company that deals with automobile-related goods said there had been some cases in which senders needed to be put on a waiting list for urgent airlifts.

“Despite the decreasing number of passenger flights, we want to support the country and its economy via air logistics while taking into account earnings and expenses,” JAL said.

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