China Southern to add 5 freighters in 2 months

This China Southern 747-400F, originally delivered in 2002 is about to re-enter service after two years in storage.

This China Southern 747-400F, originally delivered in 2002 is about to re-enter service after two years in storage.

The air freight business must be booming in Guangzhou.

If reports in the Asian and European media, as well as in several fleet tracking databases, are correct, China Southern Airlines will add five large widebody freighters to its fleet in the next two months – three new 777Fs from Boeing, and two 747-400Fs returned to service from long-term storage.

We will come back to the addition of the five freighters, but first, a little history.

China Southern is, by a considerable margin, China’s biggest airline by number of aircraft, but its focus, historically, has been on the domestic passenger market, where most of its 413 narrowbody aircraft operate. In 2002 China Southern took delivery of its first two freighters – new-build 747-400Fs ordered from Boeing. At that time, the carrier announced a grand plan to focus strongly on freight, and to become “the FedEx of Asia.”

But for five years, nothing much happened. China Southern operated its two 747 freighters, and carried a lot of domestic cargo in the bellies of its passenger aircraft, and seemed to have forgotten the big plan (although, through its stake in China Postal Airlines, it did get a taste of the express business). In 2007, however, it placed an order with Boeing for six 777Fs, and a year later began the process of converting six of its A300-600s to freighter configuration. The A300-600 P-to-F plan soon fell by the wayside, but when the last of the 777Fs entered service in 2011 the carrier ordered six more.

By the time the first of this new batch of 777F began to enter service in 2013, the worldwide air freight market was in the toilet, and China Southern put its two 747-400Fs into long-term storage in Shanghai. But after two years of steady demand growth, even with three of the second batch of 777Fs now in service and the remaining three scheduled for delivery in July and August, China Southern has clearly decided that twelve 777 Freighters (tied with Emirates for the world’s biggest fleet of 777Fs outside of FedEx) is not enough, and that it will need more capacity. Hence the return of the stored 747-400Fs to service.

The first of the two parked 747s (32804) was flown to Guangzhou last week, and is expected to return to revenue service in July. The second (32803) is reported to have now also been ferried to Guangzhou with return to service scheduled for August.

We don’t know whether the return to service of the 747-400Fs is a permanent move, a temporary move (in preparation for this year’s peak season), or a stopgap measure (with an order for more 777Fs in the works). But what is certain is that China Southern is betting strongly on increasing demand for air freight.

To learn more about freighter fleet dynamics, click here.

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