Atlas expands its fleet

This 747-400ERF (33517) will soon leave the Korean Air fleet for a new home at Atlas. Photo: Aero Icarus/Wikimedia

Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW) acquired a 747-400ERF (33515) on lease from Altavair.

The freighter was originally delivered to Korean Air in 2003, and has been operated by Korean until now. Altavair acquired it, along with a sister ship, in a forward sale late last year. The second of the pair (33517) will also be leased to Atlas when it leaves Korean’s fleet in the near future.

Atlas’ move to add 747 capacity to its fleet comes as no surprise, considering the rate at which it is adding ACMI customers. Last month, AAWW announced it had signed a contract to operate three 747-400 freighters for Hong Kong Air Cargo Carrier Ltd (the cargo arm of Hong Kong Airlines), with the first aircraft to enter service in September (serving routes between Asia and the US), and the second and third aircraft to follow in 2018. This followed three other recent contracts with Asian carriers, including Cathay Pacific (two 747-8Fs), Asiana (one 747-400F) and Suparna Airlines (one 747-400F).

Atlas has a large fleet, including (at our last count) ten 747-8Fs and twenty-four 747-400 freighters, with the -400s split between ACMI and charter flying. So the company could simply use aircraft currently in charter service to fulfill the new ACMI contracts. But, in the current environment of high demand and tight capacity, particularly as we move into what is shaping up to be the best peak season in many years, reducing cargo charter capacity is the last thing an airline wants to do. So it is no surprise that Atlas would seize the opportunity to add two relatively young (2003- and 2004-build), and likely well-maintained 747-400ERFs.

Up to a point, Atlas and other carriers can meet increasing demand by reactivating parked 747-400Fs/ERFs, but the real issue here is the future of the very large freighter. The 747-8F is the only noseloading freighter currently in production, and its 140-tonne payload is almost 30% greater than the 109 tonnes available in a 777F. But Boeing’s 747-8F backlog is now down to 16 firm orders.  If new 747-8 orders do not start appearing very soon, what happens to the 747 production line — particularly if AirBridge doesn’t convert all of the fourteen freighters in its MoU (Cargo Facts believes AirBridge has committed to at least four additional 747-8Fs through leasing and direct-purchase agreements)?

And if Boeing does decide to end 747-8 production — which it will be forced to do before long in the absence of fresh orders — then what? Do shippers, forwarders, charter brokers, lessors, and airlines really want to live in a world in which there are no nose-loading freighters and nothing with a capacity of more than 109 tonnes?

Those interested in learning more about the future of freighters should join us at Cargo Facts Symposium in Miami, 2-4 October, where Atlas CEO Bill Flynn will join us in an informative Fireside Chat.  To register, or for more information, go to CargoFactsSymposium.com.

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