“To Have or not to Have?” - The Boeing 777 Freighter

It was not too long ago that many airlines operating freighters had put their faith in the new generation Boeing 777F and 747-8F aircraft.
Faith, in the fact that these freighters, alongside the Airbus A330F, would optimize fuel consumption even further during the days of very high aviation fuel prices and low freight rates.

To be or not to be: Should Martinair keep their MD-11Fs due to the low fuel prices?   /  company courtesy
To be or not to be: Should Martinair keep their MD-11Fs due to the low fuel prices? / company courtesy

Boeing recently delivered their 100th 777F to China Southern Airlines which now has received nine of the type out of an order for twelve aircraft.
In total, 153 Triple 7Fs have been ordered leaving a further 53 still to be delivered.
Boeing’s 747-8F got 74 orders with 50 having so far reached the carriers who want them.

Will these aircraft become somewhat of a millstone around their operators necks due to the now drastic fall in fuel prices?
Some industry experts seem to be having other ideas as to whether it might not be more advisable now to take mothballed B747-400s and even MD-11Fs out of the desert and back into regular service.

Why this change in opinion?
Simply because the price of a barrel of oil has dropped from around the US$100 mark to US$50 and even lower.
This, in their view makes operating older freighters which have either been written off or have very low monthly lease rates, attractive again.
Certainly maybe the case compared to new generation jets with high unit prices or leasing payments and despite the low cost of Jet-A1 aviation fuel.

When looking at statistics on aircraft leasing rates it may seem like simple arithmetic.
Older generation freighters have been put out to rest due to their high fuel consumption and that coupled with very high fuel prices.
At least that was the case until the end of 2014.

An article published last week by our colleague Alex Lennane of Loadstar shows that older B747Fs have monthly leasing rates ranging around US$ 250,000 apiece.
The article goes on to note that compared to those carriers having to pay well over US$ 1.5 million on monthly lease rates for new generation 747s and 777s, it was even until the end of last year seen as the better alternative to fly the new generation due to far less fuel burn / costs.

Now - low fuel prices (50% below last year) plus low lease rates, but admittedly higher operational/maintenance costs, are seen to add up to a better return for carriers operating freighter fleets.

Is this really to be taken seriously?
Looking at the simple arithmetic - it might seem so.
However, looking to the future it may be seen as foolhardy to rely on this formula.
The world economy still faces many uncertainties which may, despite a steady growth and a resulting upward push for airfreight, bring us back to reality with a bang.
Russia and the shaky relationship with the rest of the world and Greece with their new government threatening to shake the EU foundations are just two of the crisis areas, which if they blow up, will shake the economy hard.

Then of course, there is the question of oil prices.
How long will the Saudia led OPEC consortium be able to hold out on flooding the world markets with oil at such cheap prices.
German financial analysts are convinced that in this respect the party is almost over and that oil prices will rise up to almost the US$100 mark in the near future.
If this happens, then older freighters with a new lease on life can just as well bite the dust as fast as they were brought out of the desert.

Fuel Surcharges are a hot topic.
Much has been discussed these last months on airlines apparently overcharging their clients on fuel surcharges despite the fall in oil prices.
Maybe yes, maybe no!
A dangerous road for carriers to go down would be if fuel surcharges were abolished altogether or a better solution if, as Emirates has initiated, an all-in price were to be introduced into the market.
This has to be fair for all concerned.
Actual freight rates on many sectors have declined to the almost laughable state of near to nil.
Propped up, some may argue by the now seen as exorbitant fuel surcharges still in place with many of the world’s carriers.
So - where is here the healthy mix which can result in acceptable pricing from the airline viewpoint coupled with the lower fuel costs - all this adding up to operating costs which will convince board room managers and investors that all is still well?

And - what will happen to the industry, specifically the carriers, if oil prices, as many predict, will shoot up again?
Everybody caught with their pants down!

Fact is that there will be some carriers who can make a quicker dollar by using older fleets coupled with low fuel costs during the coming months.
But - is that the way it is going to stay in the future?

John Mc Donagh

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