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Air cargo capacity may still be down by as much as 10% on pre-pandemic levels, but over-supply could soon be the story, as freighter orders surge, say industry leaders.

Etihad Cargo SVP Martin Drew told delegates at the World Cargo Summit in Abu Dhabi this week freighter supply was at its highest for more than a decade, with new orders and passenger-to-freighter conversions set to hit the market.

“There is pressure on yields and, as more capacity comes online with the return of passenger services, this pressure will intensify,” he said.

DB Schenker’s global head of airfreight, Asok Kumar, said the growing capacity was a consequence of the pandemic, with 3PLs and e-commerce companies forced to buy aircraft of their own as Covid forced the grounding of so many in 2020.

Mr Kumar said that, at the peak of the crisis, DB Schenker was operating 58 flights a week, and even though that had dropped to 43, he believed there had been “a paradigm shift”.

He added: “I do not see the flights dropping to zero; operating our own flights is something that is not changing – nor do I think this is unique to us.

“Forwarders will continue to operate their own services, and we are seeing new companies popping up all over the map – freighter conversions and freighter demand will be relentless.”

Despite the threat of overcapacity, carriers do not seem keen to cut back on their orders. Mr Drew said Etihad Cargo had ordered seven A350Fs and 777 passenger-to-freighter conversions.

The push for new aircraft has been exacerbated by the pressure on airlines and others operating aircraft to reach net-zero objectives.

CEO of all-cargo carrier Silk Way West Airlines Wolfgang Meier said: “Going for a greener tomorrow means, in practice, a complete renewal of our fleet and we have placed orders for five 777Fs and two A350Fs. But this presents questions, including what are we going to do with our existing aircraft?”

Thomas Crabtree, former Boeing executive and now MD of Trade & Transport Group, believed new freighters alone were not responsible for the capacity increase, and pointed out that capacity was still 5% to 10% below 2019 levels.

Some delegates felt there was sufficient long-term air cargo growth potential to absorb the additional capacity, others were more cautious, believing that in this “already depressed” market, traffic would fall.

The senior director and freighter customer lead at Boeing, Brian Hermesmeyer, said while overcapacity would likely be the story in the near-term, aircraft aging meant replacements were necessary. He explained: “When you look at the age profile of narrowbody freighters, more than 130 are at least 35.

“These need replacing by 2025 and while we may be entering overcapacity in the near term, these long-term investments in new aircraft will leave the industry well suited to meet the demand, moving forward.”

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