Increased flying for Cainiao, Alibaba’s capacity-hungry logistics affiliate, may further increase block hours flown by Belgium-based Challenge Airlines and its affiliate, Israel-based CAL Cargo, absent fleet additions.
Block hours rose from around 9,000 in 2019 to 14,000 in 2020 without any major changes to the in-service fleet. The group’s forecast for 2021 projects 19,000 block hours.
Trans-Atlantic flights between Europe and North America served from Liege (LGG) and Tel Aviv (TLV) remain at the core of the group’s operation. Since last year, the carriers have increasingly re-oriented toward Asia as well, catering to cross-border e-commerce opportunities as well as general cargo moving out of the growing industrial hubs in Central China.
Three-times-weekly service between Hong Kong (HKG) and TLV began in late 2020 and caters to booming cross-border volumes between China and Europe. “A majority of the capacity is already accounted for by Alibaba’s logistics arm, Cainiao,” Eshel Heffetz, CEO of Challenge Airlines, told Cargo Facts. The charter-like arrangement leaves Challenge — previously known as ACE Belgium Freighters — with less capacity to remarket to other forwarders, a practice it is accustomed to doing for its other flights. Most parcels are bound for the Israeli market, with some continuing on to other destinations in Europe, according to Heffetz. Discussions are underway to add a fourth weekly flight linking HKG and TLV before the end of this quarter.
In mid-2020, Challenge began serving Zhengzhou (CGO) with five to six flights per week, and later Wuhan (WUH) with three-times weekly service, with both destinations served from LGG, according to Heffetz. The lengthier flight segments between Europe and Asia complement an existing mix of short-haul flights within Europe, where an additional flight segment is added on to existing flights between LGG and TLV or a trans-Atlantic flight.
Further fleet expansion is on the horizon but is limited by the unavailability of surplus freighters in the market. “I believe that by the end of 2021, our fleet will grow by one or two aircraft, but it’s a difficult market,” said Heffetz, noting the few 747 freighter prospects expected to be released in the near future by carriers such as China Airlines.
Until then, the group will work to reduce lead times and maximize utilization of its existing fleet, currently consisting of two factory-built 747-400Fs at CAL Cargo and a 747-400BCF and a 747-400ERF at Challenge.
Scheduled all-cargo carriers generally have the highest utilization rates per aircraft due to the nature of their scheduled long-haul routes. In 2019, Cargolux reported average daily utilization of 14.1 hours per aircraft, or about 5,100 hours per aircraft.
Atlas Air, which operates 747-400Fs in ACMI and charter services, reported block hours averaging 9.3 hours per day in its ACMI segment, and 10.7 hours per day for freighters in its cargo charter segment during the third quarter of 2020. If those quarterly averages remain for the full year, those figures will equate to between 3,300 and 3,900 block hours per aircraft.
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