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Freighter operators which can provide specialist services and deliver a door-to-door product will be those that survive the current market shake-out, say industry players.

As belly capacity continues to surge into the market, freighter players seem in a precarious position – but every forwarder in the market believes there is still a need for freighters, however attractive a 777 belly might be.

Freighter operators will, however, need to sharpen their game, they say.

“People need to divert from just the airport- to-airport service proposition, looking more at the end-to-end time promise,” Des Vertannes, outgoing IATA cargo chief tells Airline Cargo Management in its June issue. “I think that will be an increasing focus for air cargo.”

Matthias Frey, head of Panalpina’s Own Controlled Network, which buys capacity from scheduled airlines as well as operating two 747-8Fs on ACMI, agreed.

“Where we can sustain freighters is if we tie in with an end-to end solution. We need to be able to control it on the ground. The key is the last mile. You win your case with trucking solutions and additional services such as customs clearance.”

Mr Frey also maintained that increasing regulation in the sector meant only those players prepared to invest in compliance and specialisation would be able to benefit.

“A lot of thing are going to be regulatory driven,” he said. “If you look at the shipment of lithium batteries, or healthcare, it’s very regulated.

“I think if you focus 100% on cargo there is a future. And it is finding the right balance with dry cargo, and cargo that would otherwise like to go by ocean.”

Mr Frey said Panalpina had focused on the pharmaceutical sector, and looked at providing cheaper yet reliable temperature-controlled solutions.

“We try to get away from expensive container solutions to provide passive solutions to control in the aircraft. But with all the processes behind regulation, such as temperature control, it’s not just aircraft type, but handling and infrastructure too.

“Carriers will need to become more specialist.”

While much of the debate over freighters has centered on the difficulty of gaining sufficient margins while bellies can offer additional revenue at lower cost, Michael Steen, chief commercial officer of Atlas Air, believes freighters can have a cost advantage over bellies.

“Freighters have an important role everywhere, even for regular general cargo, so that freight consolidations can be optimised,” he argued.

“Forwarders want to build the biggest pallet possible in order to deliver the lowest unit cost to its customers – and belly capacity will not deliver that optimal value on the high-density tradelanes.”

He also claimed that destination and passenger baggage meant that widebody bellies wouldn’t necessarily carry the payload they promised. This is backed up by Airbus, which, in its 2013 Future Payloads report, said: “Because of the complexity, limitations and costs associated with managing belly space, load factors for example do not exceed 30% in twin-aisle aircraft arriving or departing from the US.”

There is, of course, a significant amount of capacity coming in: IATA says there is a 19% increase in new twin-aisle aircraft deliveries this year, adding 8% to the widebody fleet. But whether all those airlines will focus on final mile delivery, correct handling and infrastructure for specialised products is certainly in doubt.

“All the evidence – and Boeing and Airbus agree – is that these larger bellies won’t replace maindeck capacity,” added Mr Steen.

“It’s not the end of the freighter.”

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