Maybe this year’s Paris Air Show saw the start of a new era for future freighter aircraft!
The air cargo market has slowed down somewhat compared to a year ago and the predictions for the rest of this year and the next, are not too optimistic as far as further growth is concerned. Looking at it in this context, does it make sense to plan a new generation of freighters?
Boeing still leads the field
The long-distance freighter market is almost 100% controlled by Boeing. Airbus has not been successful at all in the development and sales of new generation freighter aircraft. The only real competitor to Boeing has been the Airbus A330-200 freighter which a few carriers have bought, only to retire them when the market slowed down or due to operational and economic reasons.
There are basically only two large freighters on the market now. The venerable Boeing 747F and the newer, two engined Boeing 777F. The latter has become a much sought after aircraft as it can carry up to 102 tons of cargo, almost as much as the older B747 freighters were able to do. Other than these two, there are no real competitors in this market segment.
Is there then a need for a new generation freighter?
Some seems to think so!
For example, the buoyant head of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, made it known at the Paris Air Show that his cargo department has an interest in operating a future Boeing 777X freighter, and he is urging Boeing to development this version which would give more payload and possibly be much more fuel economical than the present B777F. Qatar Cargo already has an impressive fleet of sixteen B777Fs and has placed an order for a further five of the type. However, their argument is that by the year 2025, their freighter fleet will have an average age of ten years and would partly need replacing. “Then, why not have the B777XF in service by then,” QR Cargo argues.
Boeing also admits that they are studying the B777X as a freighter and have put out feelers to potential customers asking them what they would want to see this aircraft looking like.
The Boeing 777-9, as the X is officially termed, will finish flight testing by the end of this year and is expected to be in airline service in 2020. Boeing, always positive, claims that an additional 1,040 wide body freighters will be needed in the coming 20 years.
B777 P2F conversions are feasible option
Lufthansa Cargo needs a replacement for their aging MD-11 freighters and the logical step would be to order more B777Fs. They have also tentatively shown interest in the B777XF. What one tends to forget however, is that there is soon to be a large number of B777 passenger aircraft being phased out of service and which could ideally be converted to freighters at a cost far below that of a new B777F - not to mention the high cost of an X-version. The Boeing 777 P2F programme is till in its infancy, although it is expected that first orders will come shortly.
Luxembourg’s Cargolux is also looking at future operations and B747F replacements and is said to have told Boeing that they would like to hear more about a new 777 longer range freighter as well.
Then, comes Airbus
Not to be left out, Airbus has indicated that they are studying a new generation freighter based on their latest passenger variant, the A350 XWB. This has to offer a far better payload than the A330 freighter which although also operating with two engines, has never been a threat to Boeing’s 777 freighter.
Cathay Pacific which now operates the A350 in a passenger version and still has 21 B747 freighters in their fleet, some of which are reaching ‘old age,’ have ’indicated’ to Airbus that they would maybe be interested in an A350F in their future fleet. They also have eight B777Fs on order - so would a future new Airbus freighter make sense?
One thing is sure - aircraft manufacturers have to have forward thinking and it won’t be too long before today’s freighter fleets will either be too old, or too expensive to run.
Then why not get the drawing board up-and-running. Qatar’s Al Baker seems to be convinced that this is needed.
John Mc Donagh