The broken wheel in air cargo

It’s just not working out the way it should in air cargo today.

I don’t need to tell anyone that we are in a down market. There are any number of now-defunct cargo carriers which can attest to that.

What is striking, however, is that in normal cycles, prudent industry players would sock away valuable capital during the good years for investment when the market goes south. Only one company today seems to be exhibiting such prudence: ST Aerospace.

Last week, ST made the bold move to agree to purchase Pemco’s 737 conversion STCs out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This follows ST’s acquisition just last month of 35% of EADS EFW, the aerospace company’s conversion and MRO arm.

Are these smart investments? No one can be certain, but they seem to be smartly contrarian. Granted, ST has the financial wherewithal to be aggressive. At the end of last quarter, ST was sitting on about $1.5 billion of cash – certainly enough to play bold in air cargo.

But this is less about ST’s brashness and more about the recent vicissitudes in air cargo. Yes, cargo players should have prudently squirreled away capital for these lean years – but when exactly could they have done so? Out of the last four years, only one produced vibrant financial results for the industry. This is not a case of air cargo companies budgeting with abandon, but of air cargo companies without budgetary options.

As so many people told me during last week’s Chi-Stat event in Chicago, this too will pass. The failures of the Jade Cargos, Astars, Grandstar Cargos and others will lead to a healthier market for the remaining air cargo ventures. A couple of years of strong performance and ST will have more companies bidding alongside it for air cargo assets. Or at least we hope.

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