Aging Lufthansa freighters fly on in virus-stoked cargo boom

Lufthansa Cargo MD-11F takes off Photo: Werner Krüger / Lufthansa 1998 D 26-36-81

When the Covid-19 crisis hit the airline business this year, Deutsche Lufthansa AG was planning to phase out the half-dozen aging MD-11 freighters that remain in its fleet by the end of 2020.

Then cargo rates skyrocked. The virus destroyed demand for air travel, and as airlines grounded their fleets they also created a shortage of air-cargo space by removing much of the capacity being transported in the belly of passenger liners.

Dedicated freighters like Lufthansa’s MD-11s, which had been giving way to belly freight, suddenly became big profit generators, helping airlines to offset some of the devastation from the loss of ticket sales. The German company, one of the biggest cargo operators among passenger carriers, began to consider slowing the MD-11s’ retirement, analysts at CAPA Centre for Aviation wrote in April. Like dozens of its peers, it also drafted passenger planes into temporary cargo duty.

Lufthansa — which is said to be speeding the exit of its biggest passenger planes — is now considering keeping some of its MD-11s in operation well into next year, according to spokeswoman Jacqueline Casini.

One key will be whether air-freight prices remain high enough to justify keeping them in use. The airline is slated to receive its ninth and final Boeing 777 freighter for Frankfurt, a more-efficient, twin-engine aircraft, at the end of this month. It has four more 777Fs at its Aerologic joint venture in Leipzig.

With visibility into demand extending no longer than eight weeks, no decision has been made and the MD-11s could still retire as planned, Casini said.

The three-engine jet was designed by McDonnell Douglas as a development of its DC-10, before Boeing Co. took over its U.S. rival in 1997.

Any reprieve for Lufthansa’s MD-11s would only be temporary. A round of major maintenance known as C-checks are scheduled for the aircraft across 2021. Those would trigger an investment that’s too costly compared with the value of planes roughly two decades old. That means they will have to go once the checks are due, at the latest.

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