Combi aircraft, or those with the ability to carry passengers and cargo on the main deck, have been around a long time. In 1963 Northwest Airlines used a DC-7C between New York and Tokyo configured this way. KLM was a keen user of Combi, most recently operating 747-400Ms retired this year. Combis have lost favor over the years. But there are signs of recovering interest. Even Fokker Services has gotten into the act as several airlines put passenger aircraft to work carrying freight.
As we see the start of an air travel recovery, one of the challenges facing airlines is how to marry tepid passenger demand with rather active freight demand. The freight demand is largely focused on moving PPE, which is light. Light is always good from an airline point of view. Freight specialists like FedEx and UPS like cargo that is light and high value – the perfect combination for air freight. Aircraft generally benefit from cargo that is volume focused. For heavyweight cargo like machinery, there are specialists like Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr which both make excellent use of their AN-124s. Antonov also operates the world’s largest aircraft, the AN-225. Although the AN-124 and AN-225 typically fly machinery, lately they too have been pressed into PPE freight.
The idea we want to look at today is what happens when these large freight shipments arrive at big airports? Obviously a large part of the cargo goes to the nearest city. But what about outlying communities – say 300 to 500 miles away? Is trucking the PPE the optimal solution? Why are these high-value shipments not going by air? After all, there is something of urgency when it comes to PPE shipments.
For distances between 300 and 500 miles, a turboprop seems like a better solution. ATR has had a combi solution since 2015. More recently De Havilland Canada did the same for its Dash8 models. The advantage of deploying combis is that operators can optimize their payloads.
For example, the current market conditions for air travel is difficult. People need a sense of social distance but that flies in the face of air travel economics which has no way to price for this “space”. Social distancing and air travel is an oil and water situation. See this well laid out article by Crankyflier.
Small communities don’t offer airlines attractive economics and we have seen many lose air service. And this has been going on for years. Even as these communities feel disconnected from the global economy, COVID may have become an incentive for people to move away from big cities. These people will typically be those who can transfer their skills and work to other locations with little disruption – like those working in the digital economy. We would not be surprised to see people with transportable skills leave New York City, as an example, for communities upstate away from cheek-by-jowl living that easily becomes a petri dish. These same people will want to travel and happily use JFK and Newark as hubs to travel across the globe.
It is the potential of relocation post-COVID that supports the case for turboprop Combi aircraft. Operators can not only offer these communities global economy access but also use the same aircraft to move high-value freight to these consumers.
The case for a fleet of turboprop combis is something that should be considered. We understand this is an idea several people in the industry are considering. Turboprop fleets offer a solution and, to the great fortune of OEMs and operators, there are several aircraft available. This means low capital costs make the idea low-risk and turboprop operational costs are excellent, especially as fuel costs are at an all-time low.
A final thought. The idea is something network airlines can benefit from. These carriers want to “capture” payloads from the origin and keep it within their network. It could be time for the big network airlines to consider encouraging regional feeders to consider this idea. Never waste a good crisis.