The growth in the e-commerce sector during the past five years has been truly remarkable.
The consumer has gained a relatively easy to master access to online portals and hence so called “smart-shopping” - no matter where he or she may be on the globe.
Future freighters geared to e-commerce?
Many of the world’s airlines have been eyeing this process in the hope of gaining part of this lucrative economic change.
On the face of it, not many of the legacy carriers have pushed too hard so far. The field has been left open to e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba, who have now turned up with their own freighter fleets.
But - what will tomorrow’s freighter fleets look like in order to meet future e-commerce demand.
The larger freighter aircraft such as the B747 and MD-11 are a dying breed and even all cargo operators such as Emirates, Cargolux and Lufthansa Cargo are looking more and more towards strategic joint ventures to ensure a load factor which should be over 75% in order to break even.
Boeing is working a slimmed down B747 production line for some time now and the MD-11, which is no longer produced, is being gradually phased out as a freighter by those carriers who still have them in their fleets.
So - realistically, the narrow body freighter market must come out on top.
China leads the race
The Chinese e-commerce market is like an unstoppable train, gathering speed and extending its reach in giant steps.
With a population of billions and already more than 500 million mobile users in the country, companies such as Alibaba have long seen the direction it will take. Their Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) grew by more than 21% during the last three months of 2016 and it is said in a recent consumer report that the mobile users in the country account for almost 50% of the GMV. The report also notes that in comparison, Amazon, which is also large, has “only” 70 million active mobile users on their books.
Chinese postal and small parcels carriers are leading the race by ordering and operating short and medium haul freighters.
Most of this is geared towards the e-commerce growth in China and their plans to expand their reach further throughout North and South East Asia.
Chinese carriers such as YTO Express, China Postal, and SF Express already operate with a fleet of more than 75 short and medium haul aircraft, most of which are B737Fs or B757/767Fs. Their orders for further converted passenger-to-cargo (P2C) types is long and geared towards e-commerce demand.
Amazon doing the same thing on the other side
The U.S. e-commerce giant is doing the same thing, but until now concentrating on the U.S. domestic market by doing deals with ATSG and Atlas Air and having these carriers operate for them with B767 freighters with their Prime Air product.
It’s surely only a matter of time before they also extend their reach overseas.
And - not to forget - the likes of DHL, UPS, FedEx and even small operators, especially within Europe who operate on behalf of them with narrow bodied aircraft.
Their demand for P2C aircraft also grows.
Freighter forecast stresses the demand for narrow body freighters
The 20-year Freighter Forecast recently published by ACMG clearly confirms the above-mentioned trend.
They forecast almost a further 1,200 narrow body freighters being needed by 2036. Most of these will be P2C conversions and will go to the carriers who are more-or-less concentrating on the e-commerce market.
The integrators alone, with their sub-service operators, already account for almost 750 small and medium sized aircraft ranging from the smaller B737F to the somewhat larger B767F. And - demand is growing.
DHL is also no exception, with just about 200 aircraft under their flag of which the majority fit into the same category.
Where will this development leave the legacy carriers in their dreams of having part of the cake?
Belly capacity on long haul flights has increased tremendously, but is it enough to ensure serious competition to the upcoming e-commerce operators?
John Mc Donagh