Emirates expects gradual return of bellyhold capacity

Hiran Perera, Emirates SkyCargo

What will be the size and shape of freighter fleets in a post-pandemic world and what can we expect in their composition?

Air Cargo News spoke to Hiran Perera, senior vice president of cargo planning and freighters at Dubai-based Emirates, a major combination airline with 11 freighters and 248 passenger aircraft.

“At a global level there will be an impact on belly capacity availability for some years to come. Many people expect that once the vaccinations are out there, then passenger travel will restart, suddenly and globally. I think not. Demand will come back regionally, probably because some regions are more advanced in terms of their vaccination drives.”

Perera believes that because bellyhold capacity will come back in stages, the air cargo industry will have to deal with reduced space “for quite some time” as parked aircraft cannot return “at the snap of a finger”.

“The pandemic has probably hit the largest airlines, the combination carriers, the hardest and we will have to see how quickly those airlines can bring back capacity, even with the existing fleet. That is because when aircraft are parked and maintenance has been deferred, it might take time for people to bring capacity back.

“Freighters will remain in significant demand for years to come despite the arrival of older freighters that were parked but then pressed into service.

“At a global level, bellyhold capacity will come in earlier to certain regions but there will remain markets that are underserved or do not have the required frequency. We will see a gradual return of bellyhold capacity and while some regions will be ahead, including city-pair traffic, others will lag in terms of belly capacities.

“Supply and demand will come into the equation depending on customer requirements and we will see airlines deploy capacity based upon that demand.”

There has been some speculation on whether Covid-induced changes to future passenger travel choices will see hub and spoke operations lose out as more direct city-pair A to B flights gain importance.

“I think it will be quite the opposite, and indeed the hub and spoke will probably probably gain more traction,” Perera says. “Because some markets cannot be served so effectively on a direct flight basis. You need to pull freight in from different regions and areas, to serve a certain market, so I think that the hub and spoke will actually benefit, post-pandemic.”

The production line B777 is the freighter of choice for many airlines, while the recently launched passenger to freighter conversion of the B777-300ER is also proving popular.

Emirates president Tim Clark confirmed that the carrier is “looking very seriously” at converting some of the B777–300ERs in its fleet which are coming to the end of their passenger lives. No decision on conversions has yet been made by the carrier.

Passenger aircraft conversions will form an increasing share of the growing global freighter fleet over the next 20 years, according to forecasts by both Airbus and Boeing. But the design of passenger aircraft tends not to consider their conversion potential and extended asset value as a freighter.

Unlike passenger aircraft, production line freighters have fire suppression built into the maindeck, while the cabin floor of a freighter has greater load-bearing strength, which increases the aircraft weight and thus higher fuel burn.

The arrival of the preighter, which saw economy class seats stripped out of passenger cabins, may also play a part in future design-thinking, as this halfway-house conversion for lighter goods provided a financial lifeline for many airlines.

Says Perera: “I’m not an engineer but I remember the MD-11 passenger aircraft, which was called the “freighter later”, although the rise in oil prices meant that it wasn’t so much of a success. However, many MD-11s did get converted to freighters but I think that operators would want to take the cost efficiencies of fuel burn now rather than later, so I don’t think that is going to change pretty much.

“But things like material technology will change and are evolving all the time, so maybe those elements could come into the conversion process of freighters, in that you have more efficient conversions retaining lower weight but also carrying a good payload.”

That is for the future, and right now the airline industry faces an uncertain future in passenger demand while air cargo continues to earn vital revenue.

Observes Perera: “The issue for the airfreight industry is that whatever additional capacity is coming, be it conversions or new freighters, it is too far away when the industry is facing a shortage of capacity right now.

“I think that is probably going to be the situation for the next 3 to 4 years because it will take time for the new capacity, whether new freighters or conversions, to ramp up. That is how the industry will manage the capacity, but we will have to see what happens on the demand side, post-pandemic, regarding the economy. There are so many unknowns out there.

“That is why I think that being an agile and flexible operator is going to be the name of the game.”


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