Many airlines currently use passenger cabins to transport cargo. There is a long tradition that not only travellers sit in the seats.
The seats of Lufthansa, Condor and Co. currently occasionally carry cartons instead of passengers. As there is a lack of cargo capacity due to the corona crisis, passenger planes are being converted into cargo planes, for example for medical goods. For some, the loaded seats are an extraordinary sight, for others they awaken memories – of night air mail.
«Since my training as an aircraft mechanic at Lufthansa in Hamburg in the early 1970s, I have been preparing aircraft for this purpose late at night,» says aeroTELEGRAPH reader Michael Walczak. For the night mail flights, he and two or three colleagues in passenger aircraft removed the covers of the seat rails and pulled special protective covers over the seats, the present-day pensioner recalls.
Passengers during the day, letters and parcels at night
As soon as the plane, in which shortly before still travellers had been sitting, was converted, it was loaded with mail. Large parcels went into the cargo hold, boxes of letters landed on the seats and were lashed down with belts. «The plane always took off for Frankfurt at shortly before 11 pm,» Walczak says. Night mail planes from several German cities met at Germany’s largest airport.
«The mail was reloaded between the planes at an outpost in front of Terminal 2 and then it went back to the departure point,» Walczak says. There the mail was unloaded, the seat covers were removed and the covers of the seat rails were reinstalled. «At 6am the plane usually took off again for the first flight with passengers.» During loading and unloading, the loaders in Hamburg often received help from the airport fire department.
Deutsche Post as Lufthansa’s largest customer
Domestic night air mail took off in 1961: «The Deutsche Bundespost practically became Lufthansa’s biggest customer overnight,» was the headline in the company magazine «Lufthansa Nachrichten». «It commissioned Lufthansa to set up an overnight airmail network that went into operation on the night of September 1 to 2.» First, four Convair 440 Metropolitan and one Viscount 814 were used.
«Since these aircraft fly regular scheduled services during the day, the seats are fitted with protective covers the length of the cabin – a procedure that the night air mail has already registered as ‘Company Flying Carpet’,» it was said. From Monday to Friday, the planes headed for Frankfurt as the centre of the night flight network.
More airports, more aircraft, more mail
«Half an hour after midnight, the first airmail planes to arrive there are the Metropolitan from Stuttgart and the Viscount from Munich; at 0.45 a.m. the Metropolitan from Hanover – Cologne/Bonn follows; five minutes later the two Metropolitans from Hamburg and Bremen – Düsseldorf land,» according to the «Lufthansa Nachrichten».
Other cities were added later. In 1991, Leipzig and Dresden were connected to the night airmail network and direct flights between Cologne and Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Berlin were also added. Of course the types of aircraft also changed. For example, Boeing 727, Boeing 737, Airbus A300 and Airbus A310 were in service.
«Over 300 tons of domestic German letter mail per night»
In 1999 there were 18 aircraft distributing mail between 13 German airports. «Lufthansa Cargo thus handles 85 per cent of Deutsche Post’s daily night air volume,» a statement said at the time. «That’s over 300 tons of domestic German letter mail per night.» But times changed over the next ten years. In the summer of 2009, for example, Deutsche Post eventually discontinued domestic airmail flights within Germany for cost reasons and because of unused capacity.
But this story did not end there. On 1 December 2009, night airmail planes took off again in Germany. «From Monday to Friday there will again be planes flying for the postal service on the three north-south routes Stuttgart-Berlin, Stuttgart-Hanover and Munich-Hanover (in both directions),» wrote the news agency DPA. «Germanwings, Air Berlin and Tui will be flying.» The reason was that transport by truck had led to delays in delivery.
Three routes still exist today
And indeed, there are still such night air mail flights to this day. «In principle, we still fly the Stuttgart – Berlin Tegel, Stuttgart – Hanover and Hanover – Munich routes as part of our night airmail network and use cabin-loaded passenger planes,» a Deutsche Post DHL spokesman told aeroTELEGRAPH. Currently, however, no mail is flown within Germany due to the corona pandemic. Stuttgart airport is also closed due to a reconstruction.
The company did not explain which airlines transport the mail for DHL. A spokesperson for Eurowings confirmed, however, that the Lufthansa subsidiary was still flying night mail between Stuttgart and Berlin-Tegel until the beginning of April. It is assumed that these flights will continue when Stuttgart airport is open again. Tuifly declared on inquiry to the postal connections that they «still carry out occasional flights».