Following the start of all-cargo services by Hawaiian Airlines, the spotlight is back on regional freighters but despite abundant freight to carry, finding enough pilots is a concern.

    It was not quite the start of freighter flights that Brad Matheny, managing director of Cargo at Hawaiian Airlines, had expected. In August the carrier returned to all-cargo operations with its new ATR-72 freighters taking off from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport loaded with construction tools, household supplies, furniture and school supplies.

    They were headed for Lihue and Hilo on neighbouring islands to bring disaster relief to communities that had been hit respectively by devastating storms and volcanic lava flow. Hawaiian operated freighters in the 1940s to move beef and other goods between the islands but has been a pure belly carrier for decades.

    Volga Dnepr

    “The timing was pretty good in terms of our ability to help out,” Matheny says. “At that point you have the space because you’re still gearing up.” The airline’s resumption of freighter activities had been in the pipeline for a while, as the conversion of the ATR-72 took longer than anticipated, but it was also a matter of preparing for the new venture.

    Two weeks before the official start Hawaiian began test flights, moving some backlog cargo, to gear up for scheduled service. “They wanted to do it right and make sure they could provide a reliable service,” comments Tim Komberec, president of Empire Airlines, which operates the flights for the Hawaiian carrier.

    “It’s been going as expected,” he adds. “that size plane really hits a great market niche.” Matheny is equally enthusiastic about the aircraft, saying that the early experience has been smooth and performance has improved as employees have become more adept at handling the new equipment brought in for the operation, such as a custom-made loader.

    “We’ve managed to ratchet down our turn time a bit,” he says. Regular operations commenced in the second half of August, with the two ATR freighters flying five nights a week. They do two round-trips, one to Hilo on Hawai’i Island and the other to Lihue on Kaua’i.

    Next year’s plans

    Next year the operation is set to double in scope. A third ATR-72 freighter is expected to join the fleet in the first quarter of 2019. Once this is ready, Matheny intends to add two more routes to the operation to serve Kona on Hawai’i Island and Kahulio on Maui.

    “We have plans to grow the business further,” he says, adding that a fourth plane will probably enter service in the middle of next year.

    With four aircraft in the fleet Hawaiian can add further routes or, more likely, ratchet up frequencies. Matheny is thinking of either an early morning or a late afternoon rotation to establish better connectivity with Hawaiian’s long haul flights.

    Unit Load Devices use

    The ATR-72 takes up to seven LD-3 containers – the same ULD type used on the airline’s transpacific routes, which allows for seamless transfers between the islands and destinations in Asia, the South Pacific and the US mainland. The relief goods carried on the initial flights have given way to more typical airfreight, such as perishables. E-commerce is also going strong.

    The freighter operation complements the cargo activities of Hawaiian’s Boeing 717s deployed on intra-state passenger routes. The airline runs some 170 flights a day between the islands, which take on mostly express shipments.

    “We’ve been working with some perishables shippers. We couldn’t move their cargo with the 717s because of the packaging. These perishables are best moved on skids or in a ULD,” says Matheny.

    He has his eye on the postal contract to move mail between the islands, which is coming up for tender next year. This would inject significant volume into the operation.

    Matheny is looking to strike a good balance between different commodities and intra-island traffic and flows that connect to Hawaiian’s long haul network. “It’s easy to fill the plane, but we want a good mix,” he says.

    Empire Airlines FedEx ATR freighter
    Empire Airlines will operate some of FedEx’s new ATR freighters

    At this point transit cargo accounts for about 15-20 per cent of the volume carried on the freighters. Most of this is perishables like papayas and shrimp.

    The fact that some large customers expressed interest in moving their cargo on Hawaiian’s aircraft was one reason for the decision to get into freighter operations, Matheny says.

    So far Hawaiian has not tapped much into inbound traffic for its freighter runs. A lot of the cargo that it lifts out of Asia is headed for the US mainland.

    Flows from the continental US make for easier targets to connect with the freighters. Besides flying for Hawaiian intra-state – both the ATR freighters and ATR-42s for passenger service– Empire is a major contractor operating regional domestic US routes for FedEx. It flies 37 Cessna Caravans and 18 ATR 42s and 72s for the integrator.

    Komberec has had enquiries from others but felt he had to turn them down. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of these two customers. Our human resource is too limited, so we’re reluctant to take on additional business. We’re going to focus entirely on these folks,” he says.

    According to Stan Bernstein, president of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association, virtually all members of his organisation are facing the same frustrating dilemma. There is abundant freight to carry, but not enough pilots to fly the aircraft.

    “e-commerce is literally exploding in popularity. We’d like to fly more, but business is constrained by limitations in pilots and mechanics,” he comments.

    At the lower end of the pay scale for pilots, regional freighter operators are struggling to recruit and keep enough pilots, and their challenge has been aggravated by the change in the eligibility rules for commercial pilots in the US, when the minimum flight hours required was raised from previously 250 to 1,500 logged hours.

    Tim Komberec, President of Empire Airlines
    Tim Komberec says the size of the ATRs hits a great market niche

    Regional passenger airlines have not fared much better. “Many communities have seen a reduced service, or it has been scrapped altogether because of the lack of pilots,” remarks Bernstein.

    While the pilot shortage has attracted much attention, the lack of mechanics has not drawn many go to hotels and resorts in Hawaii. There are a lot opportunities there,” Matheny says.

    Adding an afternoon freighter run would presumably be welcome by this clientele.

    Most flights arrive late in the morning, especially those from the US mainland, which shortens the transit time to an afternoon freighter departure, so a connection to an afternoon freighter departure would shorten transit time.

    Before the arrival of the ATRs rival Aloha Air had the freighter market within the state to itself. According to Matheny, Hawaiian’s entry does not really challenge the other carrier. “The market is big enough for both,” he says.

    For his part, Empire Airlines’ Komberec also sees plenty of scope for more business, but he faces constraints. “We see steady, strong traffic growth in places where we are flying,” he reports. “I wish we had resources to do more business.”

    “This is a big one,” agrees Komberec. “The industry has seen a huge decrease in the numbers of people who go into the profession.”

    While Hawaiian went through a lengthy waiting period for its freighters to get ready, aircraft feedstock has not been a significant problem for regional operators. “The restrictive side is the pilots,” says Bernstein.

    FedEx and UPS

    FedEx made two decisive moves to boost its feeder capacity late last year, when it placed orders for 50 new Cessna SkyCourier 408s with an option on 50 more and for 30 ATR-72-600Fs with 20 options. Deliveries of both types are scheduled to commence in 2020.

    “We are one of the feeder operators that is going to operate them both,” says Komberec. “FedEx is doing some great things. We are involved in these initiatives. Some may put us a cut above everybody else when it comes to employing pilots,” he adds.

    Besides the new aircraft order, he is referring chiefly to the integrator’s ‘Purple Runway’ programme, a flow-through scheme under which pilots are hired by FedEx but spend two years with regional cargo carriers before moving on to the integrator.

    UPS has started a similar programme for young pilots. These steps have brought relief for regional carriers that operate feeders. “Purple Runway is already starting to have an impact. We have a couple of people who came on board, and we have employees who are interested in this. We’re going to get more interest in it,” says Komberec.

    Washington has also moved to help carriers with a new rule which allows pilots to accrue flight hours as co-pilots, both on single-engine and multi-engine aircraft that are otherwise authorised to be flown by a single pilot.

    Although Bernstein welcomes these developments, he notes that they do not resolve the pilot shortage.

    “I don’t see this as a cure-all, I see it as a tool to help,” says Komberec about the Purple Runway scheme.

    Both he and Bernstein think that the situation will deteriorate further, and that this is going to increase the push for unmanned cargo aircraft.

    “We are still ways off an unmanned commercial flight, but when it happens, it will not be a passenger flight from Chicago to Los Angeles,” declares Bernstein. He predicts that the first commercial flight of an unmanned aircraft in the US will be moving in over a thinly populated area between two smaller cities: “and it will be a cargo flight,” he says.