The past year can be summed up using any number of negative words and phrases, and the freighter segment has been dramatically peculiar for the past twelve months.
However, 2020 started off with IATA labeling 2019 as the worst year yet for airfreight demand since 2009. Capacity was in oversupply , which led to some freighter operators withdrawing aircraft from service. But as the COVID-19 outbreak developed into a pandemic, airlines slashed their passenger networks due to travel restrictions and lockdowns. The ensuing elimination of belly-cargo capacity has, in turn, kept those with dedicated cargo aircraft busy — so busy, in fact, that virtually all freighters are seeing record utilization.
Cargo Facts’ most popular stories of 2020 paint a representative picture of the roller-coaster year it has been for air cargo.
Atlas Air attributed its $410 million net loss in the fourth quarter of 2019 to factors such as a write-down of its 747F fleet, trade tensions, and lower charter and ACMI revenues. To that end, the company decided to park two 747-400BCFs (24833 and 26557) and two 747-400BDSFs (27062 and 27174) due to soft charter demand.
Alongside planned retirements of A310Fs and MD-10Fs and MD-11Fs, early this year FedEx Express also sent several A300Fs, MD-11Fs and 757-200Fs to storage, citing weak demand and excess capacity.
Since then, at least one A300-600F (789), two MD-11Fs (48547, 48551) and one 757-200F (24924) have returned to service.
In a similar reversal of fortune, surging demand had Atlas Air quickly bringing the four parked 747 freighters back into active service, starting in April. Within a month, three aircraft (24833, 26557, 27174) had left storage. The fourth (27062) was finally reactivated in October.
A 777F (35606) parked for almost a year also reentered service, operated by Atlas affiliate Southern Air.
Atlas’ efforts paid off; in the third quarter of 2020, the company’s adjusted net income was almost nine times higher than the same period in 2019.
As freighters crisscrossed the skies, passenger fleets around the world found themselves grounded. Many have since left storage, but far more have now been permanently removed from service, either because of accelerated retirements of older frames or because of bankruptcy or lessor repossession.
According to Doug Kelly, senior vice president of asset valuation at AVITAS, values of 737 Classic, 737NG, A321 and A330 frames could drop sufficiently that many become attractive feedstock for freighter conversion.
A major trend brought about by the pandemic has been the rise of passenger freighters — passenger aircraft used solely to carry cargo.
The use of passenger freighters has developed along two main branches: some operators have left the passenger cabin intact and used the belly for cargo, with or without additional cargo loaded in seats; others opted for the extra step of removing seats from the cabin to create more volume for lightweight but bulky cargo such as boxes of masks and other personal protective equipment.
Regardless of configuration, flying passenger aircraft on cargo-only services started in March and continues to this day. To date, more than 2,500 aircraft have been used for a cargo-only flight at least once, while approximately 200 have had their seats removed to some degree, according to a database launched by Cargo Facts in late April.
Kalitta Air may be a cargo specialist, but in early January the airline used one of its 747-400F factory freighters to evacuate more than 200 American citizens from Wuhan. The aircraft (26413, ex-Korean Air) had been chartered by the U.S. State Department and was temporarily reconfigured to transport passengers on its main deck.