Rough skies ahead for freighters, analysts say

The past year ended with a whimper for wide-body cargo aircraft, with two pure freighter outfits, Cargoitalia and Jade Cargo, exiting the market. Combination carriers were also bracing for rough skies ahead. Cathay Pacific deferred delivery of two of the six B747-8Fs due this year to 2013, and EVA decided to sell two, if not three, of its MD-11 freighters.

While Cathay’s move marks a tactical shift to match anticipated demand development, EVA’s decision carries more ominous undertones. The airline has historically generated about 40 percent of its revenue from cargo, and the decision to part with some freighters was accompanied by media reports of EVA Air president Chang Kuo Wei voicing pessimism about the outlook for 2012 after a miserable 2011.

Industry analysts and carrier executives alike expect further casualties among freighter operators. “There will be some exits. Operators will decide no longer to invest in cargo aircraft,” predicted Robert Song, vice president, Asia Pacific, at AirBridgeCargo Airlines.

Dirk Steiger, managing director of air cargo research and consulting firm Aviainform, echoed Song’s sentiments. “Is an all-cargo airline with five, six or 10 planes still able to survive in the international market without a parent company that can leverage fuel costs and other elements? I doubt it,” he said.

Nick Rhodes, director and general manager of Cathay Pacific Cargo, said it’s tough to be a freight operator in today’s market. If the carrier focused exclusively on cargo aircraft, he admitted, “we would be struggling to produce black figures at the moment.”

For Cathay, located in close proximity to the world’s largest manufacturing center, it makes sense to be a player with a global network, which requires a freighter fleet of a certain size — about 24-30 all-cargo aircraft, he said. But he added that for carriers located further away from large sources of product, the equation looks different. “If I were Air New Zealand or a European carrier,” he said, “I would have to ask myself if I need a big freighter fleet.”

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