Widebody cargo aircraft

The workhorses of the skies

11.2015 | Text: Silke Hansen

Silke Hansen writes for AEROREPORT as a freelance journalist. For over ten years, she has covered the world of aviation focusing on tech­nology, innov­ation and the market. Corporate re­sponsi­bility reporting is another of her specialty areas.

Widebodies lead the field

Air cargo does of course boast spectacular de­liv­eries, but the gargan­tuan special freighters used in these instances—Airbus’s Beluga, the Boeing 747-400 Dreamlifter, and even the world’s biggest air­craft, the Antonov AN-225 – in fact play a minor role in day-to-day air cargo oper­ations. The real work­horses of the sky are the wide­body cargo air­craft. “These are the air­craft that get the bulk of cargo trans­portation done, par­ticularly over long distances,” says Lars-Dean Hutt, Senior Power­plant Engineer at Air Atlanta Icelandic, a freight specialist from Iceland (see Inside MTU). World­wide there are 1,700 cargo air­craft in service, of which 1,100 are wide­body air­craft. The fleet is a mix of purpose-built freighters and converted former passenger air­craft. “The proportion of newly purchased wide­body freighters is ex­tremely high, since converting air­craft adds signifi­cantly to their weight, making them less efficient than purpose-built freighters,” explains Dr. Marc Le Dilosquer, market expert at MTU Aero Engines. Boeing is the un­disputed leader in this market. Of the four models cur­rently avail­able, three are built by Boeing – the 777-200ERF, 747-8F, and 767-300ERF — and the fourth is Airbus’s A330-200F.

Fewer stops, faster package transit times, competitive costs

“The advantages of using wide­body air­craft for cargo transportation are their range, trip cost, and cargo volume capacity,” says Paul Chase, Chief Operating Officer of U.S. cargo airline Southern Air. With a focus on express deliveries, Southern Air has five 777F air­craft in operation for DHL on a loan basis. “Thanks to the new, fuel-efficient generation of wide­body air­craft, we can serve cargo routes with fewer stops, faster package transit times, and competitive costs,” says Chase.

Air cargo’s guiding principle is to maximize weight and volume, since customers pay by the kilo­gram and cubic meter, not per flight. This is where wide­body air­craft clearly lead the field. “You could play foot­ball in a jumbo freighter,” says Hutt to put it into per­spective. Many cargo airlines swear by wide­body air­craft and have the jumbo jet as a part of their fleet. “The 747 freighter in particular has the unique advan­tage that the air­craft nose can be opened for loading.” This allows goods of almost any length to be transported.

In contrast, the smaller narrowbody freighters are available only as converted ex-passenger air­craft. “They’re a compara­tively cheap option with suf­ficient range and efficiency,” says Le Dilosquer. Their specialty is airmail, and they are particularly popular in the USA for delivering mail and packages by air.


+ 200% Increase in air freight capacity since 1980.
Source: International Air Transport Association (IATA)

World trade determines global freight market

Heavily depend­ent on world trade, the air cargo market remains under pressure. In 2009, the market suf­fered a massive col­lapse in the wake of the finan­cial crisis and high oil prices. Market share was lost to trans­portation by land and by sea. Since 2010, designs for container ships have been getting increas­ingly massive, which has led to soaring cargo capacity on the global freight market. Still, 2013 saw the begin­ning of an air cargo recovery, followed by the come­back year of 2014 with 5.8 percent growth. Is it a sustain­able trend? The Inter­national Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts growth of 4.1 percent per year up to 2018. IATA’s CEO Tony Tyler says: “After several years in the doldrums, an average of more than 4 percent growth would be a marked improve­ment. Since 2011, for ex­ample, growth in freight tons has aver­aged just 0.6 percent per year.” But as Tyler also points out, a volatile oil price and com­petition from sea and rail could also endanger the positive trend: “The air cargo industry certainly cannot afford to be complacent.”

What is striking are the big regional variations. With the global­ization of supply chains, Asia has risen to become the biggest market. The most import­ant air cargo routes run from North America to Asia and from Europe to Asia, fol­lowed by North America to Europe. Together, these routes account for around 49 percent of all revenue ton kilo­meters (RTKs). Wide­body air­craft dominate the routes. The East-West passage­ways are also the biggest markets for sea cargo. But new markets are emerging. The Middle East, for instance, is ex­hibiting growth rates of 15 percent a year. IATA expects that by 2018 the United Arab Emirates will climb to third place in the top ten biggest inter­national air cargo markets, behind only the USA and China.

Unique advantage 747-400 freighters such as this one operated by Polar Air Cargo can be loaded through the nose of the aircraft.

“The advantages of using widebody aircraft for cargo transportation are their range, trip cost, and cargo volume capacity.”

Paul Chase, Chief Operating Officer of U.S. cargo airline Southern Air

However, growth does not translate auto­matically into increased demand for new air freighters, even if Boeing expects to supply 840 new and 1,330 converted air cargo aircraft by 2033. More than 70 percent of them will be big wide­body aircraft with over 80 tons of cargo volume capacity. Still, the market has to contend with over­capacity. There is a whole tem­porarily de­commis­sioned fleet that must be re­absorbed before the next increase in demand for new freighters in line with sustained growth. For the time being, many freighters are left gathering dust. “There are large numbers of 747s parked away, both converted aircraft and factory-built freighters,” says aviation analyst and industry expert Richard Evans. Some could now be brought back into service, he reckons.

Over the last couple of years, there has also been strong growth in “belly cargo,” which sees cargo trans­ported in the holds of passen­ger aircraft. The Boeing 777 is perfect for this since, unlike the bigger A380, it can trans­port a great deal of add­itional cargo alongside a full complement of passenger luggage. Emirates makes great use of this, for instance. It’s a turning point that really stands out, and that is set to become more pro­nounced with the 777X, according to Le Dilosquer.


Air vs. sea

Road, rail, sea, or air—almost all of the items in global supply chains can be trans­ported using one of these methods. When it comes to inter­national freight, however, there are often only two viable alter­natives: air or sea. In 2013, 9.5 billion tons world­wide were trans­ported by sea, and 42 million tons by air.

In September 2014, Boeing 777 and 747 freighters flew the new iPhone 6 fresh from the pro­duction line in central China to the USA. Cell phones are an area in which the pace of innov­ation is extremely rapid, which means that days spent trans­porting goods by sea makes for a huge time loss. While just one percent of the world’s total freight tonnage is trans­ported by air, the value of those goods amounts to 35 percent of the global total. In 2012, the German Federal Statistical Office calculated the average value of a ton of air cargo at 70,669 euros, as compared to an average value of just 1,896 euros for a ton of shipping cargo. Goods trans­ported by air are generally capital intensive—computers, medical tech­nology, machines, and vehicles, for instance. There’s also a need for speed when it comes to aid trans­port, time-sensitive deliveries, parcels, and replace­ment parts. Express carriers such as UPS or FedEx owe their existence to the speed of air trans­port. Likewise, goods that spoil easily—for instance fresh fish—must also be delivered quickly, that is why they end up taking the aerial route. Advantage: Air.

Reliability and safety are further factors that speak in favor of trans­port by air. Air­craft stick to strict schedules and fulfill the stringent safety require­ments of the aviation industry—and both these facts are huge positives when trans­porting goods that require strict dis­cretion such as diamonds, gold bars, or Formula 1 race cars. What is more, air freighters offer the ideal conditions to trans­port temperature-sensitive cargo such as live animals or cut flowers. Advantage: Air.

When it comes to maritime trans­port, it is container traffic that has really grown over the past years, with the volume trans­ported growing by an average 7.4 percent per year. A Boeing 777F has a cargo capacity of around 100 tons, while the container ship “Gudrun Maersk,” for instance, can carry some 105,000 tons. Combined with lower fuel costs, shipping’s enormous capacity makes sea freight many times cheaper. Trans­porting a given weight on a container ship costs just ten percent of the equiva­lent air price. Advantage: Sea.

Although the higher fuel con­sumption and therefore higher CO2 emissions of aircraft make air cargo less en­viron­mentally friendly per journey than trans­portation by ship, aviation is catching up: according to IATA figures, aviation is responsible for some 2 percent of world­wide CO2 emissions, while ship­ping accounts for around 4 percent. Moreover, the energy effi­ciency of aviation has been in­creasing con­tinuously for years. This also applies to air cargo—thanks to more modern fleets and more effi­cient use of cargo space. For ex­ample, the freight-only 777F emits 16 percent less CO2 compared to a 747-400F. Advantage: Sea (still) wins out per cargo journey.

In June this year, DHL opened a new rail freight route between Hamburg and Zhengzhou in China. The goods train takes 17 days to make the journey—faster than by sea and cheaper than by air. Clearly, there is com­petition ahead for air and sea freight alike.


Freight giants Widebodies’ high loading cap­acity and range make them suitable for air cargo trans­port.


Freight giants Widebodies’ high loading cap­acity and range make them suitable for air cargo trans­port.


Atlas Air and Aerologic have 747 and 777 cargo aircraft in operation.


Atlas Air and Aerologic have 747 and 777 cargo aircraft in operation.

Inside MTU Flying Iron Maiden

When Iron Maiden set off on their 2016 world tour, frontman Bruce Dickinson will person­ally be flying the band right around the globe—roadies and staging included. Dickinson, a qualified pilot, will be hiring the jumbo jet for the trip from Air Atlanta Icelandic. The air­line is a long­standing MTU customer and an expert when it comes to this sort of wet lease—under which the air­line provides the customer with a complete package including aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance, with the airplane in the desired paint scheme and the crew in the requested uniform. Air Atlanta Icelandic is Iceland’s biggest airline and trans­ports passen­gers and cargo on behalf of other airlines. “Wet leasing is very common in the air cargo business,” explains Lars-Dean Hutt, Senior Powerplant Engineer for the airline. The cargo fleet consists of eight Boeing 747-400 aircraft—both purpose-built and converted freighters. Customers include Saudia Cargo and Air Bridge Cargo.

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