Air Freight Goes Big Bigger Biggest

The behemoths of the sky, as far as air cargo is concerned, are not quite making their promised flights. Both major airplane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, encountered problems on the way to delivering the first of their new generation of big, big planes designed to alleviate projected demands for moving passengers and freight by air. They are a step forward in helping reduce congestion at airports and an overburdened air traffic control system that’s dealing with growing numbers of airplanes.

Progress in delivering planes is being made. In mid- October Airbus delivered its first super jumbo plane to Singapore Airlines. For its part, Boeing has faced a series of challenges in delivering its 787 Dreamliner, originally scheduled to appear in May 2008. It is now projected for initial deliveries in late 2008, with test flights taking place during the first quarter of 2008.

Although there won’t be all-cargo versions of these aircraft for some time, each can carry serious amounts of freight. Despite passenger versions of the aircraft grabbing headlines at the moment, there are freighter versions in the works that eventually will make their way into the market. Basic Airbus designs are the A380-800 passenger model that seats as many as 555 in three classes and the A380-800F freighter version. These are variations on what has been considered a typical A380 configuration with passengers on two upper decks and an entire lower deck dedicated to the movement of freight. In its concept for the A380-800F cargo hauler, Airbus will offer the first commercial freighter with three full cargo decks, with the ability to carry 150 tonnes of cargo 5,600 nautical miles (nm).

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner line doesn’t currently include a freighter design, however its lower hold will handle cargo in space 40-60% greater than current airplanes in the 200-250 seat range.

For Boeing, its 747-400 Freighter is its largest commercial cargo transport plane. The manufacturer explains that it is part of the 747 family providing more than half of the world’s dedicated freight capacity with 300 planes in service. The 747-400s can carry 113 tonnes of cargo 4,450 nm. The 747-8 is the newest version in the cargo fleet. It offers a range of 4,475 nm and a payload capacity of 148 tonnes. Innovations in the 747-8 have been drawn from new technologies applied in the creation of the 787 Dreamliner.

Needed increases for cargo capacity are driving production of more and larger air freighters. As Daniel C. Fernandez, secretary general of The International Air Cargo Association notes, 30% by value of all freight moves by air. Though US domestic air freight traffic is projected to decline from its present 27.2% of cargo traffic to 23.5% by 2025, he continues, overall traffic will triple in the same period and the air freighter fleet will double by 2026. How important is air cargo? “Research shows a strong correlation between air cargo growth and that of a country’s gross domestic product,” he says.

While waiting for new planes, conversion of passenger-to-freighter and combito- freighter is providing cargo capacity. An example of such a conversion is work presently being done by Boeing as it converts two of its MD-11 passenger airplanes into freighters for Russia’s second largest freight carrier, Aeroflot-Cargo. Such a conversion will result in a payload in each of the aircraft of 93.2 tonnes with a range of 3,486 nm. Main and lower deck cargo compartments will hold 36 96- x 125-inch pallets or containers.

Looking toward 2025, Airbus projects needs for 803 new freighters and 2,777 conversions. The manufacturer expects the North American fleet to remain the world’s largest at 1,948. There will be significant growth in the Asia-Pacific region that will have 1,223 freighters based on the need to serve continually growing high-volume traffic.

In looking at overall air freight requirements into 2025, Airbus sees a shift in the top cargo markets’ actual weight lift as the US domestic market matures and the Chinese express market grows. Its top five current air cargo markets are Domestic US, China-North America, Europe-North America, Asia-North America and North America-Europe. By 2025, according to Airbus, the top five will be China-North America, China-Europe, Domestic US, Domestic China and Asia-North America. While US domestic freight demand through the period is projected at 3.3% per year, both Boeing and Airbus agree that worldwide demand for air freight will grow at 6.0-6.5% per year.

Although a great deal of freight is carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft, the requirements for reliable service and high volume payloads for cargo from China, Japan and other Asian countries is driving the need for large freighters, forecast by Airbus to increase at 5.5% annually. Boeing sees large aircraft (with payloads larger than 80 tonnes) as comprising 33% of the world’s 3,980 plane freighter fleet in 2026. It sees medium-widebody aircraft (45-80 tonne capacity) as 31% of all fleets and standard-body planes (less than 45 tonnes) as the remaining 36% of the world’s fleet. Boeing forecasts a decline in belly cargo as dedicated freighters offer more flexibility and time-definite services. It expects that by 2026 some 64% of the world’s freighter fleet will be widebody compared to the present 58% of the fleet.

While emphasis on Asian air freight continues, other parts of the world are projected to play increasing roles in the market. In the Middle East, for example, both Emirates and Qatar are making significant investments in larger aircraft. At the 10th Dubai Air Show, Emirates ordered planes, including Airbus A380s, valued at $34.9 billion. At the same Show, Qatar Airways ordered airplanes from Boeing, including 30 that are firm for the B787 Dreamliner and an additional 27 B777s, seven of which are freighters, for a total of $13.5 billion.

In other regions for which forecasts have not previously been created, Boeing has begun issuing projections for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Indications are requirements in the region for 1,060 new aircraft worth $70 billion over the next 20 years. Air traffic is projected to grow by 6% annually. In particular, growth in air routes between North America and the Russian CIS region will rise 4.1% each year.

Russia’s largest cargo carrier, Volga- Dnepr’s Air Bridge Cargo, has begun taking delivery of its IL-76TD-90VD freighter, manufactured by TAPO (Tashkent Aircraft Factory). The plane is a modernized version of the airline’s IL-76 cargo plane. The carrier claims it is the only commercial aircraft in the 30- 50 tonne niche capable of moving oversized freight to almost any airfield in the world. In addition to one it already has, Volga- Dnepr has placed a firm order for three more IL- 76TD-90VDs.

According to Volga- Dnepr, the outsize cargo market is developing more quickly than the scheduled cargo market, at 9% annually. It says while the total market for outsize freight was at $0.7 billion as 2006 ended, which was 1.7% of the total global cargo market, it is projected to reach $3 billion by 2020 and $7 billion by 2030.

One in the line of the Volga-Dnepr Group IL-76T freighter aircraft. The Group forecasts a demand for 15-20 of the modernized Il-76s by 2015.

As larger aircraft offer short and long term capacity solutions, they also present infrastructure challenges. In a recently released report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, The Economic Activity Dependent on Overseas Flights at LAX, while noting overseas flights arriving at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) contribute $82.1 billion to the region’s total economic output, the new airplanes from Airbus and Boeing present competitive threats.

The report notes that freight exports make up 80% of the annual economic activity generated by international flights. However, carriers who will be using these larger planes are considering moving the new aircraft to other US gateways if LAX makes no moves to improve its facilities. Physical upgrades are needed in airport runways, taxiways and gates. The report points out that other airports are now or will soon be ready to accommodate planes as large as the A380.

While initially the threat to LAX is with passenger flights, “In the longer term, however, a lack of direct flights may dissuade manufacturers that rely on air cargo from moving to, or expanding, in Southern California.”

While LAX is presently able to handle the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the threat comes with the plane’s fuel efficient design and long range. The report notes that the B787 could open new direct service to new cities and new markets. In addition to reaching cities in India from Southern California, it “also means that many international airlines will, for the first time, have the option of bypassing LAX entirely.”

As with the appearance of any new technology, the future holds promises and challenges for shippers, aircraft manufacturers and the myriad components of the air freight industry.

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