Today we begin publication of the 2015 edition of our annual widebody freighter fleet analysis. We start with a look at the way the fleet has changed in recent years, and over the next few days will move on to look at individual freighter types in more detail, at carriers that either began or ceased operations in the last year, and also give our view of future fleet trends.
The air freight industry turnaround that began in mid-2013 after many years of mostly flat or declining demand took firm root in 2014, and gave us a year of solid growth. But one good year in 2010 and another in 2014 have not been enough to raise the market all that far above its pre-recession peak in 2007. Through those years, passenger demand continued to grow strongly, and carriers worldwide responded by adding capacity – expanding their long-haul fleets with cargo-friendly 777s, and A330s, and more recently with A380s and 787s. Some of these have been used to replace older types, but for the most part the new aircraft were in addition to existing capacity. So it is hardly a surprise, given a seven-year period from 2008 through 2014 in which there has been little increase in demand for air freight but a massive increase in belly capacity, that carriers’ hunger for main-deck capacity has waned.
Hungry or not, they have been faced with a banquet of new freighters, ordered during the boom years prior to the recession, and then again in 2010 during the temporary spike in air freight demand. As these new freighters entered service, the only choice in an environment of flat or declining demand was to park older models, and a year ago, in February 2014 the number of widebody freighters in commercial service worldwide was almost the same as it was in 2007. In that year, Cargo Facts put the global widebody freighter fleet at 945 units; at the beginning of 2014 we counted it at 958, an increase of just 1.4% in seven years.
But 2014 was a different year. Air freight demand growth of 5% to 6% (depending on whose measurement you believe) made it a year that would once have been considered no better than normal, but which, in the last decade at least, was unusually good. As a result of the growing demand, carriers slowed the parking of older freighters, even as new capacity entered their fleets, and, as we publish this analysis in February 2015, the worldwide widebody freighter fleet stands at 978 units, a modest 2.1% increase over last year, and up just 3.5% from 2007.
However, while the total number of freighters in the fleet changed only slightly, the composition of the fleet changed much more dramatically, as new freighters entered service and older types were retired. Over the last year, thirty-nine new production freighters were delivered: nine 747-8Fs, twelve 777Fs, five A330-200Fs, and thirteen 767-300Fs. In addition – and this is a change from recent years – a few parked freighters were brought out of storage and returned to service. The extent to which falling oil prices made this an attractive option is unclear. Obviously, cheaper fuel makes operating older, less-efficient freighters feasible, but since the price did not drop dramatically until mid-year, this was probably the driving factor in only a few cases. But whether due to increasing demand or cheaper fuel, carriers brought a net of thirteen previously parked freighters back into service, including 747-400ERFs (3), 747-400Fs (3), DC/MD-10-30Fs (1), 767-200Fs (4), and A300B4Fs (2). In addition, four 767-300s were converted to BCF freighter configuration, redelivered, and put into service.
Of course there were retirements, too. Over the past year, a net of thirty-six freighters of eight types left the fleet, including 747-400BCFs and BDSFs (6 and 1), 747 Classics (2), MD-11Fs (16), DC/MD-10-10Fs (4), 767-300BDSFs (1), A300-600s (1), and A310-200Fs/-300Fs (5). However, unlike 2013, retirements did not outweigh additions, with the net result that the fleet grew by 20 units.
Through the last few years of widebody freighter additions and retirements, one type has remained remarkably stable. The medium-widebody A300-600F has been a cornerstone of the express operators’ fleets since its introduction, and will likely remain so for several more years. There are currently 165 units in the fleet, the largest number – by a considerable margin – of any widebody type, and all but a handful are operated either by or for DHL, FedEx, and UPS.
In fact, these three express operators alone account for over half of the widebody freighter fleet. An exact count is difficult, because DHL, in addition to the freighters operated by carriers it either owns or has a significant stake in, also uses lift contracted from independent carriers. Likewise, UPS uses Denmark-based Star Air to operate a fleet of eleven 767-200Fs on its behalf. Add in FedEx and the five widebodies operated by TNT, and it is clear that about 52% of the world’s widebody freighter fleet is operated by or for the big express companies (down from about 55% last year). This 52% is not spread evenly among the various types, however. The express companies account for about 34% of the large widebody freighters. This is a significant percentage, but pales when compared to the 71% of the medium-widebody fleet operated by or for DHL, FedEx, and UPS.
We will continue the widebody freighter fleet analysis tomorrow, with a look at carriers that have entered or exited the widebody arena over the last year.