Asia-Pacific combination carriers have been among the top operators of passenger-freighter flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead to additional freighters added in the region as passenger belly capacity slowly returns to the market, according to speakers on the opening session of this year’s Cargo Facts Asia virtual event.
The trend of operating passenger aircraft in cargo-only service will continue “as long as yields support it,” said Brian Hermesmeyer, director, product marketing and freighter customer leader at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, during the session. “The question will become, as they develop new models, how much of that will they lose as they go back into the passenger space?” The return of passengers will remove cargo even from the bellyholds, as cargo gives way to passenger luggage. “Some [airlines] may look for maindeck freighter capacity.” Whether they can obtain it in the type they would prefer remains to be seen.
Integrator DHL Express traditionally depends on belly capacity to remain competitive in the market, but the return of that capacity is still a “crystal ball game,” with some forecasts anticipating a full rebound as far out as 2024, said panelist Ingrid Raj, vice president of aviation and network management for the Asia-Pacific region. DHL Express has increasingly invested in its own aircraft and utilizes ACMI capacity, but with the robust growth during the pandemic, more widebody capacity could be utilized. However, adding widebody freighters in the current market is virtually impossible in the short term.
“While there is plenty of feedstock for the A330s, there are no conversion slots available until 2024, said DHL’s Raj. “Pretty much everything is sold out.”
India-based SpiceXpress, the cargo arm of SpiceJet, is also in the market for widebody freighters to connect to other Asia-Pacific countries as well as to expand routes to Moscow, Europe, Hong Kong and Africa, said CEO Sanjiv Gupta. “As capacity is limited, it’ll be a medium-term exercise,” said Gupta. “We’ll have to be opportunistic as we get our medium- to long-term plans going. Short term, narrowbody aircraft are in the cards. India can easily absorb another ten, the way it’s going,” he said. SpiceJet currently has two 737-800Fs and three 737-700Fs in its narrowbody freighter fleet.
In terms of 737 NG additions over the past year, operators based in mainland China accounted for the majority of redeliveries of 737-800Fs since mid-March 2020, according to the latest narrowbody fleet analysis from Cargo Facts.
Looking ahead to the remainder of 2021, panelists expect demand to continue growing in markets served by widebody freighters.
“Maindeck demand is historically high in trans-Pacific markets,” said Hiroyuki Homma, managing director of business planning & strategy, marketing and revenue management at Nippon Cargo Airlines during the session. NCA’s own-operated fleet is composed entirely of 747-8Fs, while its 747-400Fs are operated on its behalf by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings’ Atlas Air subsidiary. With airfreight demand expected to remain high through 2021 and beyond, NCA’s Homma emphasized the carrier’s capacity is “not only for scheduled service, [but] we can also cater to demand for charter [flights], and express service on China-U.S. and China-Europe [routes].”