Orders for factory-built cargo aircraft may not have been stellar in 2020, but overall interest in freighter aircraft has clearly risen compared to a year ago.
However, a company — whether airline, lessor or startup — looking at adding jet freighters will find relatively few options over the next one to two years, according to Frederic Horst, managing director of Cargo Facts Consulting, as conversion slots are tight and the widebody production freighters on offer have dwindled. This freighter decision tree from Horst highlights the divergence between the narrowbody and widebody segments, at least for now.
Now that 747-8 production will formally be ending next year and Atlas Air has picked up the final four frames, a company wanting a 747 freighter today would have to either acquire a used frame or have a passenger aircraft converted. Given the surge in interest over the past ten months leading to the reactivation of around ten units, 747-400Fs — whether production or converted models — are few and far between. On the other hand, two 747-8Fs previously operated by Saudia continue to be parked in the desert and have been for over a year now.
With accelerated retirements of passenger 747-400s, sending them for freighter conversion by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) could be an option, provided criteria such as price, age, cycles and engines are met.
Until Boeing announces a 777X freighter and Airbus launches an A350 freighter, the only newly built large widebody available for order is the 777F, which amassed eleven net orders in 2020. As of Dec. 31, 2020, the manufacturer had just forty-one 777Fs left to be delivered; Boeing’s backlog received a boost earlier in the final month of 2020 when DHL Express placed an order for eight and added options for four more. Time will tell whether Boeing succeeds in securing any more orders this year, although we note the company is keen to keep 777 production running, especially given a shrinking 777-200LR/777-300ER backlog and the delays to the 777X.
Meanwhile, those opting for the 777-300ERSF conversion program will have to wait until at least 2023 for redeliveries to begin.
Turning to medium widebodies, the 767F production backlog is dominated by FedEx Express and UPS, while most, if not all, the conversion slots in at least the next twelve months are taken up by the likes of Cargo Aircraft Management (CAM), Amazon and DHL Express, although there may be less of a wait with Boeing’s BCF program.
While the new-build A330-200F now no longer has any firm orders, interest in A330 conversions has picked up, with three new confirmed customers within the past year
In the case of narrowbodies, as Horst points out, there is an increasing choice of models, with a few more programs expecting certification later this year. Feedstock availability may be an issue in the case of 737 Classics, but slot availability is a larger concern generally, with most slots in the short term occupied by lessors like GECAS, BBAM, Spectre Air Capital, Aero Capital Solutions and Vallair.
Of course, as we have seen in the past year, the fastest way to offer additional capacity has been to use passenger aircraft as makeshift freighters, either by removing seats from the cabin or without any reconfiguration. Of the close to 2,600 passenger aircraft Cargo Facts has recorded being used in this way since March 2020, around 200 have undergone some form of seat removal. While by no means comparable to dedicated freighters, these aircraft have been a valuable source of revenue for many carriers during the crisis, and large-scale cargo-only operations continue even today.