air cargo freighter

Even with 21% of the fleet parked, freighters will continue hauling a large share of global airfreight as the growth in bellyhold capacity slows, according to Tom Crabtree, MD of air cargo research and consulting firm Transport Research Advisory.

“All major tradelanes appear to be heading towards recovery in the first half,” he said, pointing to a combination of strong e-commerce volumes and the disruption of ocean transport by the Red Sea crisis fuelling sea-air traffic.

Container capacity has been stretched by demand and the longer routings to avoid the Red Sea, resulting in extended transits reducing available capacity. And the differential between air and ocean cargo rates has dropped significantly in recent months.

Airfreight capacity expansion has been driven by the recovery of passenger networks, producing a string of double-digit increases year on year, but the momentum has slowed, a trend Mr Crabtree expects to continue.

“Cargo space via belly capacity will continue to slow for the rest of 2024,” he predicted.

Passenger networks are more or less back to pre-Covid levels, except in the transpacific arena, notably on US-China. This is less a result of Covid, more the Russia-Ukraine war, which has closed Russian airspace to North American airlines, Mr Crabtree pointed out.

US airlines have successfully lobbied Washington to keep traffic rights to Chinese carriers at a diminished level while they enjoy an advantage in stage length and fuel burn. This has been a big factor behind the dominance of freighters in the transpacific arena.

Whereas overall global airfreight traffic, as well as flows between the major regions, has seen the market share commanded by freighters slip from its 2021 level, it has actually expanded in the Asia-North America sector, from 82% in Q4 21 to 90% in Q4 23.

Even the full restoration of passenger networks will not push the share of global traffic moving on freighter aircraft below the 50% mark, Mr Crabtree believes. In the final quarter of 2023, freighters carried 59% of global air cargo.

Ironically, the large widebody freighter fleet, which carries the lion’s share of freight moved on all-cargo aircraft, has grown at a slow pace. Since 2013 it has expanded by about 140 units, he noted.

Moreover, a large chunk, 21%, of the global fleet is currently parked – at the end of May, 602 freighter aircraft were stored, he pointed out. The bulk of the fleet reductions were in the narrowbody segment, with 348 aircraft out of service, accounting for 58% of freighters stored, while medium-sized (132) and widebodies (122) make up 22% and 20%, respectively.

The cull in active narrobody capacity (to which Mr Crabtree attributes, to a large extent, aircraft leasing firms having over-subscribed to e-commerce growth) has made a relatively minor dent in global maindeck capacity, as this segment generates a little over 10% of lift. Large widebodies make up 60-70%, while the contribution of medium widebody freighters is around 20%.

At the end of last year, 657 large widebody freighters were in service: 45% were B747s; 40% B777s; and 13% MD-11s;, with the remaining 2% being AN-124 and IL-96s.

Over the past 18 months, the biggest reduction in this segment has played out in the MD-11 arena, which shrank from 111 units to 69, a drop of 38%. More will follow, as FedEx – one of the three remaining significant MD-11 operators – has announced plans to shrink its fleet further.

The global B747 fleet shrank by 11 (4%) in the past 18 months. The aircraft is still popular, but there have been indications that maintenance support for the 747-400 has become less readily available. Mr Crabtree said production models were still very much sought after, however, because of their nose door – but for operators of converted units, ultimately it would make sense to shift to large twin-engine freighters, he said.

“We are on the cusp of a major change in the large widebody segment,” he added, noting that Boeing and Airbus had so far garnered 55 orders each for their planned 777-8F and A350 cargo planes.

The supply of new large widebody freighters has slowed to a trickle. Boeing delivered eight new 777 freighters in the first five months of last year, but only two in the same time this year, said Mr Crabtree. With signs of slow progress in the certification programmes for 777 conversion programmes, it appears that the global freighter fleet will not see significant growth in the large widebody segment before the end of the year.


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