A heavy question
Each sky titan has its own niche and provides the air cargo industry options for shipping outsize and heavy cargo. The An-124 and An-225 are not used for scheduled service, and therefore compete in a different space to carry massive cargo, compared with the 777F and 747F platforms. The latter haul general cargo and heavy items, often in scheduled service, and sometimes also as charters, which can provide some flexibility for shippers. However, several issues challenge the air cargo industry’s future options to ship specific outsize and heavy cargo these niche aircraft offer. The titans may rule the sky today but, observers are waiting for the Olympians that will eventually replace them, as they did in Greek mythology. So far, however, no clear successor has emerged.
Of the giants, Boeing is still taking orders for the 777F, which leads the way in widebody freighters added to the global fleet. Boeing didn’t receive a single 747-8F order in 2019, for the first time since 2010. Antonov aircraft, some of which are already more than 20 and 30 years old, are currently not being produced. Therefore, the main issue is a lack of options for niche cargo, and it is not clear how oversize cargo will be loaded in the future.
“There doesn’t seem to be any kind of long-term replacements for these aircraft as they age,” Morgan Evans said. “So, I would be concerned for the long-term outsized aircraft market.”
Legal battles threatening the current operations of existing aircraft present a further challenge.
The National Police of Ukraine launched criminal proceedings against the Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport (Rosaviatsiya) and Volga-Dnepr over the Ukrainian Antonov’s An-124 in summer 2018. Antonov withdrew support for the aircraft, claiming Rosaviatsiya and Volga-Dnepr’s German subsidiary Amtes had forged airworthiness certificates and were using unlicensed spare parts for the An-124 that were not factory authorized.
A Kiev court ordered the confiscation of five of the 12 An-124s operated by Volga-Dnepr last year. However, as none of these aircraft are located in Ukraine, the court must rely on foreign aviation and transport safety authorities to enforce this order. Volga-Dnepr has rejected the Ukrainian court ruling, claiming it to be illegal. To date, the aircraft under contention are still flying, although the question lingers about whether they may be grounded.
Additional tension is infused into the case given Russia’s pursuit of its own, modernized version of the An-124, designed by Russian aircraft manufacturer Ilyushin without Antonov’s input. Antonov in late 2019 objected to the use of its brand to designate a revamped variant of the An-124, while acknowledging the need for modernization to prolong the aircrafts’ service life. The Ukrainian company warned that selection and installation of the equipment by Ilyushin would cause grave changes in the aircraft’s performance, compared with the baseline model, and could effectively lead to the appearance of a quite different aircraft type. The Ukrainian design house also said it would not be responsible for the freighter’s safety and should bear a different designation, without reference to its own long-established brand name.
As the major nose-loading aircraft are not getting any younger, the question is: Which type will next rule the skies?
No one seems to know. So, until further news of the future of these titans emerges, the industry must continue to wait.