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An El Al 787-9 slows down after arriving at San Antonio International Airport. (Photo: Luke Ayers)

Coordinating Back-to-Back 787 Critical Cargo Flights

It usually takes months, if not years for airlines to gain approval to operate international routes. Between securing the right ground service equipment at the airport to coordinating with the respective governments, there are many boxes that need to be checked off before an international flight can take flight.

The current COVID-19 crisis, however, has forced governments, airports and airlines to adjust normal procedures in an effort to quickly schedule unusual routes for repatriation flights and critical cargo delivery. As cargo demand skyrocketed overnight while passenger demand plummeted, passenger jets have stripped their seats in an effort to create more space to operate cargo services.

Airports across the globe have seen rare aircraft movements during these past few months including LOT Polish Airlines visiting Peru to pick up stranded citizens and Hi Fly landing the first Airbus A380 in the Dominican Republic.

In Texas, San Antonio International Airport was tasked with coordinating four back-to-back cargo flights earlier this week. Tel Aviv-based El Al flew four cargo flights using its Boeing 787-9s to the Texas city earlier this week, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) to a private company that specializes in the distribution of medical PPE.

The proximity of this private company to San Antonio’s airport made it the most efficient airport for the El Al jets to arrive at as opposed to larger airports in the state that regularly see wide-body traffic such as Houston Intercontinental and Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport. San Antonio has a large medical presence with the healthcare and bioscience industry representing a $40 billion economic impact on the region and is one of the top economic sectors of employment.

Brian Pratte, Chief Development Officer at San Antonio Airport, helped coordinate the three-day humanitarian cargo mission with multiple agencies at the airport and El Al. Pratte spoke with AirlineGeeks and detailed the process for approving the operation on such short notice.

“International flights include a number of layers in the process that must be addressed prior to approval. International cargo flights add even more layers to that process. While the San Antonio International Airport was the initial entity contacted, we quickly coordinated with all the appropriate parties necessary to execute seamless cargo operations,” said Pratte.

Pratte and his team arranged with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), TSA, Worldwide Flight Services, a lavatory and water provider, catering and the airport operations department to quickly approve and successfully coordinate the El Al flights.

While the airport does not regularly see passenger widebody aircraft, cargo widebodies operate at the airport on a daily basis. San Antonio’s airport also hosts a large MRO facility that welcomes unique widebody traffic periodically, including a Turkmenistan Airlines 777 recently.

“Fortunately, the ground handler had the majority of the required ground support equipment onsite already. Being a large diversion airport for both United and American due to proximity to their major hubs, the ground handler is able to obtain any other additional equipment on a temporary basis, such as a 787-capable ground power unit (GPU),” said Pratte.

Ground service employees unload the El Al retro jet in San Antonio. (Photo: San Antonio Airport)

The airport operations team also performed safety checks on the airport’s runways and taxiways to ensure the El Al’s Dreamliners could seamlessly operate at the airport. The El Al flights brought cargo in the belly of the 787s as well as in the cabin. Of the four Dreamliners that flew to the city, one was the carrier’s 1960s-inspired retro livery aircraft.

Fast-paced preparations at the airport for this operation were key to ensuring critical PPE could quickly be transported from Israel and distributed in the U.S. While San Antonio isn’t the only airport in the U.S. coordinating unusual routes these days, the airport is the first to host a temporary cargo operation of this scale in the region. The Israeli airline also operated a repatriation flight from Houston earlier this year.

In addition to these COVID-19 related cargo services, San Antonio Airport is also being used by various carriers to temporarily store aircraft including multiple Air Canada 787s. The airport has seen near-daily increases in passenger numbers this month as passenger travel across the U.S. picks up.

“During the same time period, the national average rolling growth rate has been 20% while SAT is exceeding that pace at 23.3%. Granted, we’re still down significantly, but an upward trend is certainly a welcome sign of a potential recovery, whatever that may look like,” Pratte concluded.

Mateen Kontoravdis
Mateen Kontoravdis
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