Cargo Facts loves a mystery, and yesterday Boeing served one up for us, announcing an order for six 777Fs from “Unidentified Customer(s)”.
As always, our first thought on seeing those two words was, “who could it be?”
How about FedEx? While Boeing has never acknowledged outstanding orders from FedEx, the Memphis-based integrator has made it clear in its SEC filings that it has committed to buying more 777Fs from the manufacturer, conditional only on there being no change to the governance of its labor relations. So could this be FedEx converting these conditional orders to firm? No, probably not, because (as far as we know) FedEx only has five conditional orders left.
What about EVA Air? Senior executives from the Taiwan-based carrier have, on several occasions, publicly stated that EVA is planning to replace its current fleet of 747-400 and MD-11 freighters with 777Fs, so could this be the first step toward that goal? Given that EVA has been very public with its refleeting plans, it seems unlikely that it would suddenly be shy enough to want to be announced as an “Unidentified Customer” so we rule this guess out.
Lufthansa? The German carrier’s cargo arm has made it clear that it would like to replace some of its MD-11 freighters with more 777Fs, but, as is the case with EVA, we expect that Lufthansa would announce any such move with great fanfare, not sneak it in under the “Unidentified Customer” label.
Who else? Asiana’s plans for 747-8Fs appear to have fallen through, so perhaps it has decided on 777Fs instead? Perhaps it has, but because Asiana, and compatriot Korean Air (which also wants more 777Fs). have placed major fleet decisions on hold until the current aviation unpleasantnesses have receded a sufficient distance into the past, we rule them out as well.
Saudia? Ah… now here is a candidate that more closely fits the bill. The Saudi Arabian government has brought in a new aviation regulation forbidding the Kingdom’s carriers from operating aircraft older than 20 years, and Saudia Cargo’s fleet is full of 20+-year-old 747-400 freighters (mostly leased from Air Atlanta Icelandic). And freighters ordered from Boeing that go to Saudia Cargo are almost always announced as being ordered by, and delivered to, “Unidentified Customer.” So, could this be it? Hmmm… Maybe. But then, Saudia has already ordered (under the “Unidentified” label) four 777Fs this year, and six more doesn’t seem all that likely.
There are other carriers that could be considered potential candidates, but in each case we run up against enough negatives to make us think, “No, that’s not it.”
So who is left?
Cargo Facts believes that the most likely scenario is an opportunistic buy by a lessor.
Boeing is faced with the problem of trying to keep 777 classics rolling off the production line in the run-up to the start of serial production of the 777X. However, the easy way to accomplish this – cut the price of the 777-300ER – would have the unfortunate side-effect of cannibalizing sales of the X. Freighters, though, are a different story, and, from Boeing’s point of view, represent a very good way to fill production slots on the 777 line over the coming years, without cutting into future sales. And looking ahead, even in the current environment of low fuel prices, carriers are going to continue to want to replace their older, four-engine freighters with the newer, far more efficient, 777F — but the other side of the current environment (low yields), will make leasing more attractive than buying for some of them.
So, if we had to bet, we’d put our money (or at least the price of a cup of coffee and a doughnut) on “Unidentified Customer(s)” turning out to be a lessor who saw a chance to get a jump on the competition, and be ready for the time when any of the above-mentioned carriers (or Cathay, or DHL, or AeroLogic, or TNT, or…) are ready to make their move.
We shall see…