Inside the Air Canada Flights Filled with Much–Needed Medical Cargo

Capt. Doug Morris takes us behind the scenes of Air Canada’s project to turn passenger jets into cargo carriers.

When the going gets tough, the tough get innovative. That’s what Air Canada has done by converting three Boeing 777s (our biggest aircraft) into cargo–only transporters. All economy and premium economy class seating has been replaced by engineered tie downs and nets so these planes can carry medical supplies from around the world. The seat–free cabin can accommodate up to 144 cubic metres of cargo on top of the 140 cubic metres available in the hold (belly) – altogether, about 1,000 boxes. That’s a lot of carry–on! And, because these supplies are light (like carrying ping–pong balls instead of heavy machinery) the loads bulk out before weight can become a factor. What’s more, our cargo–only runs are a hit: 17 cities are now served by the new cargo service, and cargo was behind Air Canada’s longest ever flight – a 16.5–hour Sydney–to–Toronto run on April 27. Also, three converted Airbus A330 passenger aircraft will join the effort in the coming days.

May 1, 2020
An Air Canada Boeing 777 ready to be loaded with medical supplies
Lifting the cargo up into the doors of the Air Canada plane
Cargo must be manually loaded through cabin doors, a process which required more innovation. Montreal Trudeau airport authorities made available the unique mobile Passenger Transfer Vehicles to transfer boxes into the cabin.   Photo: Erik Ritterbach (left)
Medical supplies loaded into the passenger area of an Air Canada plane
The Boeing 777’s belly/cabin combo can accommodate about 9 million face masks in cargo. A load of medical supplies, however, is bulky rather than heavy.
The crew hard at work on the cargo bay below an Air Canada plane
The crew wear masks and gloves while moving the boxes along the conveyor belt inside the Air Canada plane

Innovation also sparks motivation, and Air Canada employees are stepping up to make these airlifts happen. Two AMEs (Aircraft Maintenance Engineers), also trained in firefighting and first aid, tag along on each 777 combo flight and inspect the cabin every 30 minutes. I recently flew such a mission on the Boeing 787–9 Dreamliner to Shanghai, with a layover in Tokyo Narita Airport. (On the 787–9, the cabin seats are not removed – we only fly cargo in the belly). I have to say it was a strange feeling to walk through the airplane with 298 empty seats and no flight attendants. But, we adapt. Heck, we pilots have to figure out how to make coffee, heat our meals, and get acquainted with the entertainment system to watch movies during crew rest. We look like kids in a kitchen, opening each and every cupboard. And I have ever more appreciation for Air Canada flight attendants.

Portrait of Air Canada's Captain Doug Morris
Photo: Reynard Li

Doug Morris is an author, meteorologist, instructor and Air Canada captain on the Boeing 787.