In 2019, the widebody freighter fleet swelled by 5%, following on the heels of booming cargo demand between mid-2016 and 2018. It was also the start of a market cooldown that saw total industrywide cargo traffic drop 3.3% YoY in 2019. Under normal circumstances, these conditions would have led to a shrinking of the world’s widebody fleet.
But last year was anything but normal. By mid-January 2021, the fleet had grown 3.6% year over year to 1,218 widebody jet freighters in commercial service worldwide, with seventy-two carriers or carrier groups. As bellyhold capacity available on international passenger flights plummeted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship between cargo traffic and widebody fleet growth was flipped on its head as freighters became the only game in town.
“If you have 747 freighter capacity, you’re holding on to it fairly tightly. There is the occasional freighter floating around, but it’s slim pickings,” Baldvin Hermannsson, CEO of Air Atlanta Icelandic, told Cargo Facts.
In the following analysis, we look at how the past year’s aircraft transactions — including reactivations — have led to overall changes in the widebody fleet, and take a closer look at developments by manufacturer, carrier region and type.
The table below shows the widebody freighter aircraft in service as of mid-January 2021. For these purposes, we have grouped together airlines and affiliates that belong to the same parent group, or those with common investors; these have been marked with an asterisk.
Click on each column header to sort by ascending or descending order.
The categories of airline used in this analysis are: combination carriers that operate both scheduled passenger and freighter flights, such as Korean Air and China Southern; express carriers with their own AOCs, including FedEx and UPS; scheduled all-cargo carriers including Silk Way West Airlines and Nippon Cargo Airlines; and specialist cargo carriers (e.g. Air Transport International and Air Atlanta Icelandic). In 2020, many scheduled all-cargo carriers operated a larger share of unscheduled charter flights due to the pandemic, but this factor did not lead to any category reassignments. The majority of carriers in the specialist group operate most of their freighters on an ACMI or CMI basis in support of combination and express carriers.
|Carrier / Group||747 -8F||747 -400F||747 -400BCF||747 -400BDSF||747 -300F||747 -200F||777F||MD -11F||DC/MD -10-30F||DC/MD -10-10F||A330 -300P2F||A330 -200F||A330 -200P2F||767 -300F||767 -300BCF||767 -300BDSF||767 -200F||A300 -600F||A300 -200F||A310 -300F||Total|
|Air Atlanta Icelandic||0||3||1||5||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||9|
|Air France KLM Martinair Cargo||0||3||1||0||0||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|Air Transport Services Group *||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||32||18||0||0||0||52|
|All Nippon Airways||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||4||5||0||0||0||0||0||11|
|ASL Aviation Holdings *||0||5||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||4||0||0||12|
|Atlas Air Worldwide *||10||32||2||2||0||0||9||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||9||13||6||0||0||0||85|
|Cathay Pacific *||14||6||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||2||0||0||0||0||0||9||0||0||34|
|Challenge Aircargo *||0||3||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|China Cargo Airlines||0||2||0||0||0||0||8||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||10|
|China Southern Airlines||0||2||0||0||0||0||14||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||16|
|DHL Express *||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||0||4||1||0||6||22||0||0||36|
|HNA Group *||0||1||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||8|
|Nippon Cargo Airlines||8||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||8|
|Northern Air Cargo||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||0||0||2|
|Royal Air Maroc||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|San Marino Executive Aviation||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||1|
|Silk Way West Airlines||5||5||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||10|
|Sky Gates Airlines||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|Transcarga International Airlines||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||2|
|Transportes Aéreos Bolivianos||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|ULS Airlines Cargo||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||3|
|Volga-Dnepr Group *||13||6||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||20|
|Western Global Airlines||0||1||2||0||0||0||0||12||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||15|
|∑ = 93||∑ = 157||∑ = 26||∑ = 23||∑ = 1||∑ = 5||∑ = 200||∑ = 110||∑ = 14||∑ = 4||∑ = 6||∑ = 38||∑ = 3||∑ = 189||∑ = 40||∑ = 79||∑ = 57||∑ = 164||∑ = 5||∑ = 4||∑ = 1,218|
Sources: Carriers, lessors, manufacturers, CF FAT Database, various fleet-tracking services
Out of storage
As airlines grounded passenger aircraft by the thousands during 2020 — especially from around April to at least August — previously parked freighter aircraft began making their way out of short- and long-term storage.
Between January 2020 and January 2021, Cargo Facts recorded more than ten 747 freighters rejoining the active fleet, mostly as a direct result of the pandemic, with the vast majority being converted -400Fs.
Atlas Air, which had parked four converted 747-400Fs (24833, 26557, 27174 and 27062) around the end of 2019 due to weak charter demand, brought them all out of storage by October 2020, and affiliate Southern Air began flying a 777F (35606) after almost a year of storage. In November 2020, Western Global Airlines put into service the production -400F (29258, ex-Atlas Air) it had acquired earlier in the year and deployed a couple more MD-11Fs, while fellow U.S.-based carrier National Airlines reactivated three ex-Cathay Pacific 747-400BCFs (26547, 27217 and 25068) that had been parked since 2013. National recently told Cargo Facts that it may consider adding more 747s to its five-strong freighter fleet.
As for the express integrators, FedEx stored several A300-600Fs and MD-11Fs in the first few months of 2020, but quickly brought them back into service in the second half, and in November 2020, UPS finally began flying the first two ex-Lufthansa MD-11Fs it had acquired at the end of 2019 (48805 and 48806).
In Europe, Moldova-based Aerotranscargo expanded its operational fleet last year by bringing back into service three converted 747s: a 747-400BCF (24459, ex-Thai) and two ex-Air Cargo Global 747-400BDSFs (25075 and 24998).
Additionally, Bermuda-based Longtail Aviation accelerated its plans to enter the cargo market with the addition of its first 747-400F (27503, ex-Cargolux) on lease from U.A.E.-based Aquiline International in June, and added a 747-400BCF (24975, ex-Rubystar Airways) on lease from CargoJetX in November. The carrier had previously told Cargo Facts it might expand to a fleet of three to eight freighters in 2021.
We note that the two 747-8Fs (37562 and 37563) previously operated by Saudia continue to be parked in the desert, where they have been for more than a year. At the same time, there are just a few remaining 747-400 freighters still in long-term storage.
Combination carrier control of the fleet declines
Although freighters within the fleets of many combination carriers enjoyed a level of appreciation unseen in recent years, passenger airlines continue to control a shrinking share of the large widebody freighter fleet.
In 2020, large widebody deliveries to combination carriers slightly outpaced deliveries to express carriers, but this was more than offset by the abovementioned reactivations. Six combination carriers took delivery of fourteen 777Fs, compared to a total of twelve 777Fs and 747-8Fs delivered to the express carriers UPS, DHL and FedEx.
Combination carriers’ control of the large widebody fleet dropped to 33% in 2020 from 35% in 2019, and from 36% in 2018. This rebalance is likely to continue based on unfulfilled orders. Absent additional orders, the ratio could hold steadier in the coming years due to new orders from combination carriers. Slightly less than one-third of Boeing’s 777F order backlog is held by combination carriers, whereas express carriers control slightly less at 28%.
The medium-widebody segment continues to thrive among express carriers and those who operate on its behalf. Some 62.8% of the 40-to-80-tonne segment is operated by express carriers, and nearly 88% of the backlog is bound for express carriers.
Express redistributes geographical distribution
More than 70% of the medium widebody freighters are operated by airlines based in North America, nearly all by or in support of the integrators and — more recently — for Amazon. This is up slightly from last year, and future deliveries indicate the North American share will increase going forward. FedEx, UPS, and the airline subsidiaries of Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) and Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings are the main operators.
North America-based carriers’ share of the medium- and large-widebody freighter fleet continues to grow. Nearly 47% of the large widebody fleet is based in North America, up from 40% in 2017. UPS’ growing 747-8F fleet has been a major driver behind growth of the North American fleet. Fleet additions and reactivations at specialist and ACMI carriers such as Atlas Air, Kalitta Air, National Airlines and Western Global Airlines have all contributed to this growth.
Asia Pacific’s share of the large-category fleet fell one percentage point to 22%, down from 28% just two years ago. Asia-based combination carriers have kept their fleets relatively stable for the past three years, while express carriers in the region operate far fewer large widebodies than their North American and European counterparts. SF Airlines operates two 747-400ERFs and ACMI-leases additional capacity from Atlas Air — a drop in the bucket compared to UPS’ forty-unit MD-11F and thirty-three-unit 747F fleet.
Despite controlling a smaller share of the freighter fleet compared to past years, 2020 was relatively active for the Asia-Pacific region’s combination carriers. China Cargo Airlines and China Southern Airlines each added a net of two 777Fs to their fleets, and China Airlines’ active fleet increased by two aircraft following the delivery of two 777Fs. EVA Air will further grow its fleet with the addition of three 777Fs. However, this is expected to be offset by China Airlines’ eventual retirement of some of its 747-400Fs, even if this does not occur in the next year or two. The merger brewing between Asiana and Korean Air could consolidate the freighter fleet operated by South Korea-based carriers. While no concrete cargo strategy has been unveiled, more details are expected in March.
In Europe, DHL Express is the primary contributor to net large-widebody freighter fleet growth. However, although five of the fourteen 777Fs it ordered in 2018 have been placed on the European AOC of AeroLogic, another five are operated by Kalitta Air and Southern Air. Because it is currently unclear which carrier will fly the remaining four under that order — as well as the eight ordered in January this year — we have included them with large widebodies on order for specialist operators, but placed them in the European category for now.
Narrowing options for widebody freighters
Airbus’ share of production freighters on order is now reduced to zero, after Turkey-based MNG Airlines — the only remaining customer on the A330-200F backlog — finally cancelled its long-stagnant order for three aircraft in December 2020. Although Airbus has not officially terminated the A330-200F program yet, it is doubtful the manufacturer will garner any new orders for the freighter, given the ramping up and maturation of Elbe Flugzeugwerke’s (EFW) A330 conversion program and the likely continued decline of feedstock prices. EFW has three new customers since January 2020: Stratos, CDB Aviation and Turkmenistan Airlines.
After Boeing in July 2020 formally announced the 747-8 program would end in 2022, it emerged that Atlas Air, not Volga-Dnepr Group, will take the final four frames to come off the final assembly line.
With that in mind, the only large widebody production freighter on offer right now is the 777F, which only has forty-one aircraft on firm order. On the conversion front, apart from the 777-300ERSF program, which will not have the first aircraft (32789) complete until at least 2023, the only other option is converting 747-400s with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). This may see something of a renaissance in 2021.
Particularly for carriers with young 747-400s in their fleets, freighter conversion may be justified. Air Atlanta Icelandic had not seriously considered freighter conversion as an option for the seven 747-400 passenger aircraft it owned and operated through early 2020. When demand for ACMI-leased 747-400 capacity collapsed, the carrier moved to part out three of these units, and has continued to hold onto four airframes younger than twenty years old.
Taking that “leap of faith” and sending those aircraft into conversion would require a solid business case for the next ten years at least, said Hermannsson of Air Atlanta Icelandic.
While the carrier isn’t willing to take that leap yet, and would rather see passenger demand pull the aircraft back into service, “It’s definitely something that we are keeping an eye on and are evaluating,” the CEO said.
As of mid-January this year, airfreight demand continued to outstrip capacity while the goal posts for passenger aviation recovery move further down the field. “All the optimism around vaccines, and people starting to travel again — I think that’s fading a little bit as reality settles in,” said Hermannsson. The prospects for airfreight, on the other hand, are brighter. “I think we’re going to have a fairly strong cargo year,” he added.
[This feature first appeared in the February 2021 issue of Cargo Facts.]