Lufthansa Cargo: Inside one airline’s LAX operation

Perhaps you’re in Europe and you need a Corvette. And you want it in a few days, not a couple of months. How would you get it?

You might try Lufthansa Cargo, the German-based airline with a worldwide route network. Lufthansa Cargo flies three times a week to Los Angeles International Airport, and the airline recently allowed me to observe its operations here. For a couple of hours, the tarmac is bustling, with crews simultaneously loading and unloading cargo.

The Corvette is just one tiny piece of what Lufthansa Cargo transported on a recent evening. Read on to learn more about how it all works.

On this night, Lufthansa flew a three-engine MD-11 to LAX. The plane, which has three engines, is considerably less efficient than the Boeing 777, which enters the carrier's fleet in November.

On this night, Lufthansa flew a three-engine MD-11 from LAX to its Frankfurt hub.  The MD-11 is also tricky to load, Lufthansa officials told me, because of weight and balance issues. The MD-11 can carry about 70,000-80,000 metric tons of cargo. A 777, they told me, can carry as much as 110,000 metric tons. Lufthansa Cargo is about take delivery of a bunch of 777Fs.


Lufthansa Cargo operates a giant warehouse on the South Side of LAX, away from the terminals. Tonight, the MD-11 was able to handle 76,000 metric tons of cargo. But initially 81,000 tons was slated to go, so some stuff had to wait for another night.


Everything behind the forward-most door is allotted to cargo. But there a couple of seats just behind the cockpit. They don’t look all that comfortable.


Lufthansa Cargo’s flight usually comes in from Chicago, where it makes a stop on the way from Frankfurt. (The flight to Europe is nonstop.) As cargo is offloaded, the airplane actually rises. Initially, these stairs were at the same level as the door. As the plane is loaded, it gradually sinks lower.

What does Lufthansa Cargo carry? Pretty much anything. These peppers started in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. They first went to Germany, then Chicago and then Los Angeles. There were to sit here overnight and be picked up the next day.

What does Lufthansa Cargo carry? Pretty much anything. These peppers started in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. They first went to Germany, then Chicago and then Los Angeles. There were to sit on the tarmac overnight and be picked up the next day.


Loading a MD-11 is not easy, though much of the system is automated. Pallets have been in  the right place at all times, or there is a risk that a plane will tip (That’s very, very bad, as you can see in this picture of another MD-11.) You can also see that the way the pallets are put together is important. Built correctly, they mimic the curvature of the aircraft — high in the middle, and lower on the sides.


Each area on the plane is assigned a letter, as you can see above.  This car is so big is takes up two slots ‘I’ and ‘DR.’  (A reader  in the comments section informs me that the ‘I’ simply denotes the halfway mark between two spaces.) Sending the Corvette to Europe was probably not cheap. (On the same night the Corvette was leaving L.A., a Volkswagen — covered in a tarp — arrived from Germany. But the car was so secret I was not allowed to take pictures of it.)


About an hour after the MD-11 arrived, the upper deck is filling up. There’s also a small lower deck. Tonight’s cargo is relatively basic, but other nights feature such stuff as aquarium fish and German Shepherds.

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  • mavcable

    Nice piece, Brian… I would, however, like to make a few corrections:

    is no “I” slot for cargo inside the aircraft. If you’ll notice in your
    last photo, what you’re calling an “I” is actually just a marker line
    showing the half-way point between the various lettered positions on the
    walls. :)

    Also, please don’t use the word “tarmac” in your
    work. It shows a lack of knowledge of real aviation terminology and
    leads to serious aviation buffs not taking you seriously.

    are no airports left in the U.S. that actually have a “tarmac” surface
    on the ground anymore (probably only a hand full left in the world).
    There haven’t been for decades. Concrete has long since been the
    material of choice.

    The area where this aircraft was parked and
    where those peppers will spend their downtime is referred to in the
    aviation world as a “ramp” or, to a much lesser extent, an “apron.”

    news media started using the word “tarmac” to describe just about any
    area of an airport many, many years ago – and they’ve been wrong the
    entire time. As an example, during the coverage of the 777 crash at SFO
    back in the summer, there were news outlets (and still are today) that
    referred to the area where the aircraft crashed as a tarmac (it was very
    clearly a runway). Some are still calling the final resting point of
    the aircraft a ‘tarmac’ – when we can all clearly see that the aircraft
    was in the grass off to the side of the runway. I see stories all the
    time that refer to aircraft as landing or departing from the ‘tarmac’ –
    and this drives folks in the aviation community crazy. Aircraft depart
    and land on runways, folks… Should that require an explanation?

    Anyway…sorry about the rant, and thanks for your time.

    (Nashville, TN)

    • Brian Sumers

      Thanks for the advice, Matt. I really appreciate it. Keep the comments coming.