Readers often ask if it’s possible to fly on a UPS aircraft as a passenger. Ocean freighters sell cabins to adventurous travelers, so it’s a reasonable question. Due to limited space and FAA regulations, the answer is no. There’s an old joke: If you want to fly on UPS, you have to ship yourself in a box (illegal and potentially deadly – don’t try it).
There was a brief time when UPS Airlines actually carried passengers – in style. The story begins with a brain-storming session in the mid 1990’s…
The “Asset Utilization Experiment”
In 1996, management personnel at UPS (then known as United Parcel Service) were brainstorming ideas to better utilize company aircraft. Although some UPS aircraft operated 7 days a week, most of the company’s 727 fleet sat idle on the weekends. UPS wanted to generate revenue with the aircraft when they weren’t needed for express package service. The company devised an “asset utilization experiment” to use the idle freighters for passengers on weekends.
Tour companies and cruise lines charter aircraft to fly vacationers to sunny destinations like Cancun on Saturdays and return them home on Sunday or Monday. The timing was perfect; UPS had plenty of 727 aircraft available from Friday until Monday afternoon. But the airplanes were freighters. No seats, overhead bins, galleys, or lavatories.
The challenge: turn a freighter into a comfortable passenger jet in under four hours on Friday morning, then back into a freighter by Monday night.
The Five UPS Passenger Jets
In their former life, UPS Boeing 727-100 aircraft were passenger jets. The fleet had recently gone through a major upgrade, replacing noisy Pratt & Whitney engines with quiet, efficient Rolls-Royce Tay turbofans making them Stage III compliant (really quiet). The re-engined aircraft was designated 727-100QF (Quiet Freighter).
Boeing 727 Spotter Tip
When looking at old photos, it’s easy to spot a 727 with the Rolls-Royce Tay engine conversion. Look for the funny bulge in the center engine “S-Duct.” The bulge is necessary for airflow requirements of the Tay turbofans. A 727 with a straight inlet has the original Pratt & Whitney engines.
UPS decided to convert five aircraft for the experiment. The airline would use four aircraft for scheduled weekend charters. The fifth aircraft was a spare for ad-hoc charters or maintenance contingencies.
UPS awarded PEMCO World Air Services the contract to convert the five 727 freighters into 727-100QC (Quick Change) airliners. The aircraft chosen for the experiment were N946UP, N947UP, N949UP, N950UP, and N951UP.
The work was significant. Each aircraft had two permanent passenger lavatories installed. Cabin interior sidewall liners and overhead trim were added. Flight attendant seats were installed to the bulkheads. Modifications were made to the electrical and pneumatic systems to accommodate passenger requirements.
TCAS Required on Passenger Aircraft
When UPS started flying passengers in the 1990’s, TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) equipment was not required on cargo aircraft.
In order to fly passengers, the FAA required UPS to install TCAS in the Quick Change aircraft. The five passenger planes were the first UPS aircraft to receive this critical safety enhancement.
The FAA now requires all passenger and cargo airliners to have TCAS. Read more about this important equipment: TCAS: Preventing Mid-Air Collisions
The Quick Change 727 concept was not unique to UPS. Boeing offered a 727 QC variant direct from the factory and delivered 111 of them. Several carriers, including Eastern and United Airlines, operated the QC. The Rolls-Royce Tay-powered 727-100QF freighters converted to QC were unique to UPS.
The Quick Change
On Thursdays or Fridays, Quick Change aircraft would be transformed from freighter to passenger jet. Maintenance crews carried overhead storage bins aboard through the main cargo door, then secured them to the ceiling and side walls.
At the heart of the conversion were flat pallets holding 2 rows of 6 seats, complete with a carpeted aisle. Crews brought the seat pallets and galley aboard through the cargo door and rolled them into position. The installation team connected wiring harnesses to power lavatories, galley, emergency lighting, flight attendant call buttons, reading lights, and safety signs.
In under four hours, a 727-100QC was ready to carry 113 passengers someplace sunny and warm.
The following video from UPS Airlines provides a quick overview of the Quick Change process. The transformation is amazing.
I owe a special thank you to the folks in UPS Airlines Public Relations. Not only did they provide me photos, they found this 1997 promo video in their archives and polished it up for YouTube.
Brown on the outside. Blue on the inside.
UPS passenger program managers wanted to exceed customer expectations. Passengers were often surprised at what they found inside the brown and white UPS aircraft: comfortable seats and a vibrant blue color scheme.
Seat pitch (spacing between rows) in airline coach sections is typically 29 to 32 inches. UPS seats had a pitch of 33 inches, giving passengers more leg room than most other airlines.
Can a cargo pilot legally fly a passenger airliner? The answer is, without a doubt, yes. With a few minor differences, passenger and cargo airline pilots receive the same training and are held to the same high standards.
How did UPS decide which pilots flew passengers?
Every two months, UPS publishes a list of schedules. Pilots prioritize and bid the schedules they want. Crew schedulers then award the schedules by seniority.
Any UPS 727 flight crew member could bid a passenger, cargo, or combination schedule. Crew members who received a schedule that included passenger flights attended a short ground school. Training included long range navigation (for over-water flights), procedures, and regulations unique to passenger operations.
Many of the UPS pilots enjoyed flying passengers and regularly bid the flights. Flying passengers was a nice change from flying freight.
The Cabin Crews
Arguably the most important members of the program were the flight attendants. They represented UPS and worked hard to give passengers a positive experience.
Instead of hiring and training cabin crews, UPS used a staffing agency that specialized in providing experienced cabin crews to small airlines.
The agency hired cabin crews specifically for the UPS passenger operation.
Flight attendants attended three weeks of training. Hands-on training in the 727 took place at the UPS facility in Louisville, Kentucky. Water emergency training took place at a local YMCA swimming pool.
When it was time to fly, the flight attendants arrived for work wearing, not brown, but blue uniforms with a cheerful sunshine necktie. These were, perhaps, the first non-brown uniforms in UPS history.
Every pilot I spoke with gave the cabin crews high marks. The flight attendants worked well with both passengers and pilots to keep the operation running smoothly. It must have been a challenge to babysit 113 vacationers and three cargo pilots!
Gail Menefee was a cabin crew member with UPS from July, 1998 until the end of the passenger program. I asked Gail if she could share some memories:
The UPS passenger operation was first class. We provided hot meals, snacks, and of course beverages and alcohol.
Outbound flights in the morning received a hot breakfast and beverage (the whole can was offered). Later in the flight, a wide assortment of snacks and beverages was served. Before landing, warm cloths were handed out to each passenger. Return flights were the same except we served a lunch/dinner meal instead of breakfast.
Most of our flights were pleasure trips, people going on vacation. So the atmosphere was fun and pleasant. We rarely had problems and when we did they were handled very professionally and quickly. We had great crews and always had fun, but first and foremost, safety was our number one priority.
It was a pleasure working for UPS Passenger Service and was a highlight in my life. I made life long friends flying for UPS and I have nothing but fond memories.
The Passenger Flights
The first passenger flight took place on Friday, March 7, 1997. The aircraft and crew flew 115 passengers from Pittsburgh to Orlando.
UPS Airlines didn’t sell tickets. The airline had contracts with all-inclusive tour companies and cruise lines. Tourists that booked an air-included vacation in a city served by UPS would be ticketed on them.
During the program, The UPS vacation flights departed primarily from Louisville, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Destinations included Miami, Bermuda, Cancun, Aruba, Punta Cana, Las Vegas, Santo Domingo, Barbados, and more.
UPS also flew charters for college and pro sports teams, politicians, press corps, auto racing teams, and famous musicians.
A very special charter took place in June of 1999. UPS donated an aircraft to transport athletes to Raleigh, North Carolina for the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games. An all-volunteer flight and cabin crew staffed the aircraft.
Passengers and UPS Employees couldn’t resist cracking jokes about flying in a freighter. The one-liners practically wrote themselves…
- Do we have to hold parcels?
- Oh, it’s a UPS jet! I wonder what we get to sit on?
- Will we have to wear a bar code?
- UPS has begun transporting “self-loading cargo!”
If you remember an old UPS Passenger joke, put it in the comments and I’ll add it!
Retired UPS Captain Lyle Kooima enjoyed flying passengers. Captain Kooima shared some insight about his UPS passenger flight schedule:
Most of the passenger flights were on contract with a travel company. We transported tourists to/from all-inclusive vacations.
We would usually begin on Friday afternoon in Louisville and ferry the aircraft to Pittsburgh. Saturday, we flew to Cancun and back. On Monday, we would fly to Punta Cana and back. On Tuesday we would ferry the aircraft back to Louisville.
Those of us that flew the passenger flights thought it was a good deal and enjoyed it. Daytime flying, flight attendants, good in-flight meals (we ate what the passengers ate), and nice layovers.
Every airline encounters operational challenges and the UPS asset utilization experiment was no exception. Here are a few challenges the airline successfully overcame:
The 727-100QF with the new Rolls-Royce Tay engines had improved range. A few destinations, however, still required a fuel stop.
A typical flight from Boston to Aruba landed in Orlando for a fill-up. Refueling took place on the apron while passengers waited on board. After a 30-40 minute pit stop, the flight was back in the air to Aruba. Although refueling stops are occasionally required at major airlines, UPS passengers were sometimes surprised it was necessary.
Emergency Arrival to Pittsburgh
Flight crews are occasionally presented with special challenges. Captain Lyle Kooima told me about one exciting flight that gave him the opportunity to assist two passengers with a family emergency.
We were operating a flight from Cancun, Mexico to Pittsburgh. Over the Gulf of Mexico, we received a message from UPS dispatch. The daughter of parents on my flight had been taken to the hospital in Pittsburgh for an emergency appendectomy.
I called Air Traffic Control and explained the situation. ATC gave us this clearance: “Cleared direct PIT, any altitude, any airspeed.” I contacted UPS flight control and requested a flight plan for direct Pittsburgh at the most expeditious altitude and fastest speed.
Also, I asked our dispatcher to request Customs and Immigration to meet us at the gate in Pittsburgh for immediate clearing of the two parents.
I instructed the lead flight attendant to inform the parents of the situation and re-seat them in row one.
When we arrived in Pittsburgh, air traffic control treated us as an emergency aircraft and provided expedited taxi clearance to the gate. The lead flight attendant asked all the passengers to remain seated until the parents deplaned. Customs and Immigration were waiting at the door, the parents were immediately cleared, and escorted out of the airport.
Although I never heard anything about the daughter’s condition, it was satisfying to have all departments cooperate to the greatest extent possible.
Quick Change Dilemma
Performing the quick change every week caused unanticipated wear on the equipment. As careful as ground crews were during conversion, nicks and scuffs on the liners and overhead bins were inevitable. Pins and connectors in the 2-row seat modules were not as sturdy as expected. The connections sometimes needed repair after modules were removed from the aircraft.
An unexpected problem arose with the passenger interiors: they were difficult to fit into some of the aircraft. Boeing built the 727 in the late 1960’s. Manufacturing tolerances were not as accurate as they are today. Although close, the exact dimensions of each aircraft were unique. To compound the issue, the planes had thousands of pressurization cycles on them. Repeated pressure changes on a fuselage change the length and width of an aircraft ever so slightly.
Because each aircraft’s exact dimensions were unique, some interior components needed modification to fit. This resulted in interiors that were not interchangeable with different aircraft as originally planned. Each interior had to be assigned to its own aircraft. Empty ferry flights were sometimes necessary to position an aircraft in the same city as its interior.
Due to the irregularities with the aircraft and interiors, program managers decided it was more convenient to keep the five aircraft in full-time passenger configuration. Although no longer able to fly freight, UPS utilized the aircraft on weekdays for ad-hoc charter opportunities.
End of the Program
On September 3, 2001, UPS Airlines flew its final passenger flight. The airline returned the five Quick Change aircraft to freighter configuration after completing existing contracts. UPS 727 Flight Operations Supervisor Dave Parker explained why UPS ended the program:
Although profitable, the passenger program proved to be less profitable than flying packages. Since the passenger aircraft could not be converted back to cargo configuration during the week, the decision was made to suspend the utilization experiment.
Company aircraft would be better utilized in our core business of delivering packages.
UPS had a fleet of 51 727-100QF (including the 5 Quick Change jets) and 8 727-200 aircraft. UPS retired its last UPS 727 in August, 2007. Most of these classic airliners have been scrapped.
UPS Employees and Passengers:
Positive stories and additional information about the UPS passenger program are welcome in the comment section. All comments are moderated and there are a few ground rules:
- Please refrain from using passenger and customer names (tour companies, cruise lines, charter customers).
- Every airline experiences delays, cancellations, and embarrassing moments. News feeds and blogs are filled with the bad stuff. I’d like to read about your positive experiences with the UPS passenger program.