Chinese carriers are flocking to secondary airports

Uni-top’s 747-200Fs and five A300-600Fs will soon be joined by two more A300-600Fs. Will the Wuhan-based carrier also add 747-400Fs?

In recent months, securing landing rights at European Airports has been an issue of great concern for many cargo carriers – especially in the face of noise and nighttime flight restrictions, and caps on annual take-offs and landings. These issues are only likely to intensify. Looking beyond Europe to China, however, may provide a better picture of what else is to come: unable to secure landing rights at some of the country’s busier airports, China’s domestic express carriers are quickly turning to alternative, secondary airports.

Earlier this week, Wuhan-based Uni-Top Airlines requested permission from the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) to launch a series of international freighter flights from Wuhan and Tianjin, a move fueled by rapidly growing cross-border e-commerce demand. As early as April 2018, Uni-top is seeking to operate 8x-weekly flights from its Wuhan hub in a rotation that would connect Novosibirsk and Luxembourg with either 747F or A300F equipment.

With the majority of Russia’s inbound cross-border e-commerce shipments clearing customs in Moscow, some carriers and freight forwarders have questioned the suitability of Novosibirsk as an alternative gateway. However, Seoul-based Air Incheon recently told Cargo Facts that the carrier has attended high-level meetings with local officials in Novosibirsk, and is optimistic the airport will be able to eventually provide the expedited customs clearance services required of e-commerce shipments.   

Returning to Uni-top, the carrier also made a separate request to begin 4x-weekly service connecting Tianjin – Luxembourg – Wuhan with a 747F.  Uni-Top has an active freighter fleet consisting of five A300-600Fs and one 747-200F. A second 747, this one a -400F has long been stored at Beijing Capital Airport, while two more A300-600Fs are currently in conversion with EFW. Given the distance between Tianjin and Luxembourg, the range would be taxing on either an A300-600F or a 747-200F even without a full payload, so it is plausible that Uni-Top may be looking to eventually return the parked freighter into scheduled service, or acquire a 747-400F from another source.

For Uni-Top, this would be the first flight out of Tianjin. The Tianjin Municipality’s Binhai Airport, located on the outskirts of Beijing, has recently seen an influx of freighter flights, symbolic of both the capacity constraints at Beijing Capital Airport (which is located 110km to the north), as well as the strong desire of regional authorities to entice new carriers, and develop the port city into a sizable air cargo hub.

A second carrier, Guangzhou-based Longhao Airlines is also new to Tianjin. Longhao recently began operating 5x-weekly charters between Nantong and Tianjin on behalf of SF Airlines with a 737-300F. In this case, it’s likely that Nantong (130km to the north of Shanghai) and Tianjin are secondary alternatives to airports in Shanghai and Beijing. 

If these ambitious plans come to fruition, freighters will become a common sighting at TSN.  Earlier this week, Tianjin Cargo Airlines reaffirmed its plans to launch in 2Q18 with a triad of 737Fs, according to a CAAC News report. Within five years from commencing commercial service, the HNA-affiliate start-up carrier plans to expand its freighter fleet to 50 aircraft, comprising of 737Fs, 767Fs and 747Fs. It is still unclear if the first 737Fs will come out of the fleet of Longhao’s sister carrier, Suparna Airlines, or from an outside source. Tianjin Cargo Airlines, which received CAAC approval to launch in October 2017, intends to serve domestic routes with narrowbody aircraft before gradually opening international cargo routes with widebody freighters.

Few details regarding Tianjin Cargo Airlines’ freighter acquisition plans have been publicly released. Those interested in learning more about the airline’s plans are invited to join us in Shanghai 23-25 April for Cargo Facts Asia 2018, where James Yu, Chairman, Tianjin Air Cargo Co. Ltd., will speak on a roundtable panel dedicated to Asia’s Growing Express Networks. For more information, or to register, visit www.cargofactsasia.com.  

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