First B747-400F recalls a previous crisis

IT recalls an earlier era when carriers enthusiastically ordered a brand new freighter type, only to have second thoughts in a sharp economic downturn.

B747-400 freighter LXFCV, now undergoing a C-check in the gleaming new maintenance hangar of Cargolux, was ordered by Air France in 1989, and was only the second of the type ever to be built. Then the French carrier changed its mind and parked it in the desert. The aircraft finally entered service with Cargolux in 1993, the first B747-400F ever to take flight with commercial cargo.

Air France was not the only carrier to have second thoughts about the -400F.  In 1989-90 a range of other carriers – including Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Asiana – ordered the freighters from Boeing, but faced with the Gulf War and the early 1990s recession decided to defer delivery. But ultimately, in the late 1990s, the -400F became the workhorse of global air cargo, with 166 delivered by Boeing before production ceased last year.

Is it a good omen for today’s freighter orders? With finance tight to non-existent and volumes plummeting, today’s B777 and B747-8 orders look equally as shaky as those early B747-400Fs. But air cargo may yet go on to shrug off today’s difficulties and enter a new period of golden growth.

In the meantime, LXFCV and one of its fellows is off to UPS in September. As it goes, Cargolux president and CEO Ulrich Ogiermann may shed a sentimental tear, but he will also breathe a big sigh of relief.

The sale of the two aircraft – agreed two years ago – allows Cargolux to trim 12.5 per cent off its capacity and gives it breathing space till its first B747-8Fs – for which it is also the launch customer – arrive in mid 2010.

Ogiermann is currently not over-optimistic about how the market will be by then, forecasting that airfreight will not return to 2007 levels until 2013. He also notes a loss of business to sea freight, as time to market suddenly no longer becomes such an important factor for shippers, and blasts the “irrational capacity that does not follow normal rules” that still remains in the market.

He has a particular target in mind: “Middle Eastern carriers who go for market share and get a lot of money out of the deep pockets of certain governments.” Cargolux is not competing on a level playing field with such operators, he says.

On the other hand, he notices a slight rise in yields out of Asia and the US in recent weeks, a possible glimmer of hope. “But how long these will stay at this level, no one know. We have been wrong twice with our predictions this year, so we have given up making predictions.”

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