Glimpse of hope for cargo operators: second-hand aircraft market?

Carlos Yudica /

The cargo side of aviation has had a very wild ride throughout the past few years, as demand crumbled down then shot back up. Yet with uncertainty going forward regarding the demand for cargo, as belly capacity goes up due to the resumption of passenger services, one bright light in a dark night might be the secondary aircraft market.

One such example could be the recent announcement by Boeing. The United States-based manufacturer broke the news that DHL Express, a Germany-based logistics company that also operates its own cargo airline, bolstered its fleet with four extra Boeing 767-300 Converted Freighter (BCF) aircraft.

“We have operated the 767-300F model across our global fleet for many years and look forward to continue investing in the platform by adding more 767-300BCFs,” seemingly an exciting statement by Geoff Kehr, the Global Air fleet manager at DHL Express, read.

The 167 aircraft-strong fleet of DHL includes 34 Boeing 767 aircraft, a few of which were converted from the passenger version.

At a weird place

Aviation’s cargo sector is at a weird place right now. 2019 was a disastrous year for freight companies, as it recorded the worst year since 2009, the year of the financial crisis, International Air Transport Association (IATA) report showcased. Despite no major global events taking place, apart from the elephant, or rather a panda, in the room in the form of a trade war between China and the United States.

“Trade tensions are at the root of the worst year for air cargo since the end of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. While these are easing, there is little relief in that good news as we are in unknown territory with respect to the eventual impact of the coronavirus on the global economy,” remarked IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac.

For DHL Express, weirdly enough, it was a good year. It finished 2019 with an extra revenue of $1.1 billion (€954 million) compared to 2018, while it managed to stay profitable with an Earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) increase of $94 million (€82 million).

“2020 will be another challenging year for the air cargo business,” added de Juniac, concluding IATA’s cargo sector report for the year.

And so far, 2020 is a difficult year for everyone involved in aviation due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, for the cargo industry, the falling demand is offset by the plunging capacity. Latest numbers by IATA showcase that there is a gap between capacity and demand, as the former dropped by 34.7%, while the latter by 20% in the month of May 2020.

“But predicting the length and depth of the recession remains difficult,” noted the monthly report.

Preparing for the future and new opportunities

Nevertheless, cargo airlines have to prepare for the future and increase their capabilities. After all, e-commerce is a sector that is only on the rise. Oddly enough, the pandemic helped to spur the growth of the sector, according to the 2020 Digital Economy Index report published by Adobe.

“The key finding in the May analysis is that e-commerce shopping levels during COVID-19 (April to May) were higher than what retailers saw during the 2019 holiday season (November to December),” highlighted Adobe. Shoppers in the United States spent $10.5 billion more than compared to their Christmas shopping sprees.

Shopping online also broadens the geographical scope of one’s purchases, thus requiring the package to cover additional kilometers on its journey. With shifting consumer behavior, opportunities open up. And even in the short-term period, with cargo demand and capacity discrepancies, the chance to earn additional revenue is there.

For example, KlasJet, a private charter company that specializes in private and corporate charters, added a Boeing 737 freighter during the pandemic.

“Since the negatively impacted cash flow affected not only major airlines and companies, smaller airlines and private charter companies had to innovate differently,” read the announcement.

Closing window?

Of course, the conversion process should be carefully weighed: after all, converting an aircraft is not a one-day job. For example, according to an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) spokesperson, converting a Boeing 767-300 involves a process that takes up a Turnaround time (TAT) of 120 days. A lot can change in that time period, including the opportunity to swim in blue waters.

“During April & May, air charter business surged due to COVID-19 and the urgent need to move large volumes of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China to Europe. As the pandemic spread across the globe, trade lanes changed with large quantities moving to North and South America. In June the volumes began to subside for the full charter PPE business,” commented Neil Dursley, the Chief Commerical Officer (CCO) of Chapman Freeborn, a company which specializes in passenger and cargo charter flight services. And with the shift in demand, the profit margin has also seen a drop, according to Dursley, who noted that rates for cargo have dropped from mid-May compared to what it was in April 2020.

“We see far fewer COVID-19 fixtures but we have seen a substantial increase in humanitarian related fixtures for multiple NGOs and we see that continuing. We are also beginning to see some more traditional cargo volumes returning for some of the automotive manufacturers,” commented Dursley on the current cargo demand.

Nevertheless, there was never a better time to acquire an older aircraft and convert it into a freighter. Aircraft prices, except for freighters, have dropped. The same Boeing 767-300, which DHL Express will proceed to convert to a freighter, has lost 17% of its value, according to ch-aviation. The Airbus A330-300, another wide-body certified to undergo a conversion to a freighter, lost 22%. The Boeing 777-300ER lost 18%. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) recently began converting the first 777-300ER to a freighter.

On the narrow-body side, however, there is little competition to the Boeing 737 or the Boeing 757. Airbus is still in the process to deliver its A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion to the market.

AeroTime News approached Airbus for comment on the A321 P2F.


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