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The Role of the Freighter - The Airline Perspective

Article Submitted by Astral Aviation Ltd – TIACA Trustee and Board Member

Written by: Sanjeev Gadhia, Astral Aviation Ltd. 


Having operated an all-cargo airline with a fleet of 15 Freighter Aircrafts which operates from our hubs in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Liege and Dubai, Astral Aviation derives considerable value from its freighter fleet in transporting cargoes to and within its network.

Freighter Aircrafts offer greater control over schedules, volumes and routes, while being able to access airports which are under-served by passenger aircrafts. Freighter Aircrafts have the ability of transporting outsized cargoes which cannot be carried by a passenger aircraft.

According to Boeing, In addition to the long-term trend of dedicated freighters carrying more than 50% of global air cargo traffic despite growing widebody passenger fleets, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of main-deck freighters in our global air transportation system.

While increasingly capable passenger widebody airplanes have helped the air cargo industry grow during the past decade, dedicated freighters are anticipated to continue to comprise at least 50% of the world air cargo traffic carried.

There are several key reasons for freighter preference in air cargo flows:

1) Most passenger belly capacity does not serve key cargo trade routes;

2) twin-aisle passenger schedules often do not meet shipper timing needs;

3) freight forwarders prefer palletized capacity, which is not available on singleaisle aircraft;

4) passenger bellies cannot serve hazardous materials and project cargo, a key sector in air cargo flows; and

5) payload-range considerations on passenger airplanes may limit cargo carriage, which decreases the likelihood that cargo will arrive at its destination on time.

Freighters are particularly well suited for transporting highvalue goods because they provide highly controlled transport, direct routing, reliability and unique capacity considerations (volume, weight, hazardous materials and dimensions).

These distinct advantages allow freighter operators to offer a higher value of service and generate nearly 90% of the total air cargo industry revenue.

From a network standpoint, freighter routes are highly concentrated on relatively few trade lanes, especially in the world’s two largest trade routes, East Asia–North America and Europe–East Asia. In contrast, passenger networks are much broader and often include destinations where cargo demand is minimal.

This difference in passenger and cargo traffic distribution explains the considerable load factor difference in belly space and freighters, which average approximately 30% and 75%, respectively over the last decade. In addition, range restrictions on fully loaded passenger aircraft and limited passenger service to major cargo airports make freighter operations essential. For these structural reasons, freighters are forecast to carry more than half of the world’s air cargo for the next 20 years.

Over the next 20 years, the freighter fleet will grow more than 60% from 2,010 to 3,260 units. There are 2,430 freighters forecast to be delivered, with approximately half replacing retiring airplanes and the remainder expanding the fleet to meet projected traffic growth. More than 60% of deliveries will be freighter conversions, 72% of which will be standard-body passenger airplanes. Of the projected 930 new production freighters, just over 50% will be in the medium widebody freighter category.