The pandemic, of course, gave birth to the hybrid ‘preighter’ aircraft – a passenger plane with the seats taken out of the cabin to make room for mostly personal protective equipment (PPE), face masks, and COVID-19 tests. However, there are a lot more differences between cargo and passenger planes than seats vs. pallets in the main cabin. Let’s take a closer look at what these are.

The airfreight market saw a significant boost during the global health crisis, as belly space in passenger jets disappeared when commercial airlines ground substantial parts of their fleets. Cargo is only expected to grow as a market, fueled by a booming international e-commerce trade. Amazon even has its own fleet of freighter jets, and commercial carriers are ordering new cargo-only planes along with passenger aircraft.

Qatar Airways Cargo Boeing 777 at JFK Airport

Photo: Vincenzo Pace I Simple Flying

Today, the idea of running cargo services alongside passenger routes is a tactic that many airlines deploy and increasingly turned to during the pandemic downturn to boost revenue. It makes economic sense and also meets growing international consumer demand. Indeed, many modern airlines have their roots in cargo. Conceived for the transportation of handwritten mail near the turn of the 1900s, it’s fair to say that freighter flights and aircraft have evolved beyond all initial expectations.

The first cargo flight

The first flight that ever resembled what we now know as cargo service was back in 1911 when aircraft was used to transport mail. However, the first true cargo aircraft was only developed in the 1920s, when the UK decided to create a plane to meet the pressure surrounding the transportation of soldiers and their goods. In 1921, the Vickers Vernon was delivered to the Royal Air Force (RAF). Two years later, the aircraft was deployed to transport 500 Sikh troops to battle.

The idea of using aircraft for the war effort gained traction. In 1939, aircraft were developed with rear doors, which made loading and unloading cargo that much easier.

Troops in front of Vickers aircraft

Photo: Getty Images

Cargo vs. passenger planes

The fundamental difference between cargo planes and passenger aircraft is, of course, what they transport, and they are specifically outfitted to serve their purposes. While passenger planes predominantly fly travelers with minimal luggage stored in the hold, cargo planes are completely kitted out for the transport of goods.

There are no passengers seats in a cargo plane. Instead, there is an empty galley that can be manipulated to carry various types of cargo and maximize payload. Typically, the floor of the aircraft cabin will be complete with rollers and latches to hold down crates.

What’s more, there will be no windows and, rather than emergency exits, there is a large loading door to fill the aircraft with goods. A variant of this design is where the plane nose can lift to accommodate goods storage. A notable example of this is the Boeing 747 freighter model.

Boeing 747 cargo plane being loaded

Photo: Getty Images

It’s worth noting that aircraft freighter design varies. Some planes use multiple wheels to maximize the weight distribution through the aircraft, such as the now-extinct (or at least incredibly expensive to revive) 32-wheel juggernaut Antonov AN-225. Some cargo aircraft have wings situated at the top of the fuselage to load cargo from the bottom. Others do the opposite.

Passenger plane to cargo conversion

Yet, while cargo planes and passenger planes are different, there are some similarities. This is the reason why a lot of ex-passenger planes can be turned into cargo variants. Airlines and often lessors may choose to extend the life of their aircraft through freighter conversion. It’s a cost-effective alternative to purchasing a new cargo plane though it does require a lot of logistical planning.

For that to happen, the fuselage of the passenger plane must be adapted to fit the cargo specification. The windows of the aircraft will often be plugged to create a seamless metal body.

Then the interior cabin features will be stripped in preparation for a floor that facilitates the easy maneuvering of goods. Before that can be done, the floor will be reinforced to bear the weight of its cargo. A door will be fitted to allow for cargo loading, and final checks will be conducted to make sure everything is in working order. Passenger to freighter conversions are more popular than ever before, and programs include Boeing 767s for Ethiopian, the same type en masse for UPS, and Airbus’ A320P2F.


Photo: Getty Images

So, that’s the physical difference, but what about how the aircraft fly? Is it that much different flying a freighter than a commercial passenger aircraft?

What’s the difference between a cargo and a passenger pilot?

Though the internal load may be different, pilots of freighter and passenger planes harbor many similarities. Cargo and passenger pilots need the same training for their licenses. Regardless of the load, they will have an equal FAA rating and experience.

Again, while their journeys can be different, both have things in common. There are the same number of pilots on cargo and passenger flights. Typically, with a flight time of fewer than eight hours, two pilots will be required on the aircraft. Over that, three or four pilots will be needed. Of course, the distinct difference on the passenger plane is that a crew of flight attendants also makes up the flight team. A passenger plane may seem more staff-heavy, but the cockpit is just the same.

Photo: Getty Images

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2 pilots in Turkish Airways cockpit

Therefore, when it comes to choosing which type of aircraft to operate, pilot, or freighter, it comes down to the individual’s personal choice. There are benefits to both. For freighter pilots, the attraction comes around job security. It is common for freighter pilots to get paid higher and more competitive salaries.

At the same time, they are often exempt from the devastating effect of weak economic climates, something that became all too obvious over the past couple of years. People still need goods shipped, which means that freighter operations are always in demand. Alongside that, profit margins on these types of services tend to be higher than on passenger services.

A350f rendering

Airbus is offering you a 1000m2 canvas to play with. Image: Airbus

What is the future of cargo planes?

As a result, cargo services can be very profitable ventures. Boeing estimates that by 2040, the industry will be valued at over $300 billion. Demand for air cargo rose 6.9% in 2021 compared to 2019, and with continued disruptions to maritime freight, the demand for sending goods by air is likely to remain high – although, of course, volatile geopolitical situations may cause even this to wobble.

Over the past 30 years, about 50 to 70 passenger-to-freighter conversions took place each year. However, predictions are that by 2025, this will have more than doubled, potentially reaching close to 180. And while Boeing is wrapping up production of its 747 – that has done very well as a freighter indeed, it is still market leading in new cargo widebodies with its 777F.

The latter will supposedly hand over the crown to the cargo variant of the 777X. However, Airbus now has skin in the large freighter game with its A350F. Despite the cargo gold rush initiated by the pandemic slowing down somewhat over the past few months, it will be an interesting battle to follow.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


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