Where have all the freighters gone?

Gulf region freighter fleetsWhere have all the freighters gone? To the Persian Gulf, that’s where.

For the last two years air freight industry news has been dominated by stories of the demise of the freighter aircraft. Air freight demand may be rising, but, if you believe the headlines, all that freight will soon be moving in the bellies of widebody passenger aircraft, as one carrier after another downsizes or eliminates its main-deck cargo operation.

The reality, however, is different. Yes, some carriers are either ending or drastically downsizing their freighter operations. The obvious examples are British Airways (now IAG) and Air France-KLM. And it is also true that as carriers – particularly carriers from the Gulf Region – expand their widebody passenger fleets with cargo-friendly aircraft like the 777, 787, and A330 (and soon the A350 and 777X), some cargo has shifted from main deck to belly. But those Gulf Region carriers are not just expanding their passenger fleets, they are also expanding their freighter fleets, with the most recent example being Qatar’s announcement at the Farnborough Air Show that it intends to order four more 777Fs (along with fifty 777X passenger planes).

Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, and especially Emirates, make the news with huge orders for passenger aircraft. But in recent years they have also placed orders with Airbus and Boeing for a large number of freighters. The Gulf’s fourth major carrier, Saudia, has long had the region’s largest freighter fleet, and while the overall size of that fleet is not changing much, its composition is, as the carrier replaces older types.

The chart above shows our projection for the combined fleets of the four Gulf Region carriers when the freighters they are known or believed to have on order are delivered – likely by the end 2016. It is possible that some of the older freighters may be retired by then, or that some of the freighters ACMI-leased by Emirates, Etihad, and Saudia may be returned to the lessors, but given the projected continuing growth in air freight demand, any retirements or returns will likely be balanced by further orders.

So, while it is true that the once-mighty freighter fleet of Air France-KLM is shrinking, and may even disappear altogether, it seems safe to say that the total number of freighters in Europe and the Middle East is not changing much.

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