A Massive Cargo Aircraft Shortfall Is Coming In 2022

There are only four types of cargo planes produced by Boeing and Airbus, the Boeing 767 freighter, the Boeing 747-8F, the Boeing 777F, and Airbus’ A330-200 freighter. There are plenty of aircraft conversions to turn defunct passenger aircraft into cargo planes, but only four brand new designs on the market.

Cargo
Cargo is very lucrative for airlines. Photo: Atlas Air

Eagle-eyed readers will realize that these aircraft are actually quite old designs. In fact, from 2022, there might not be any left for cargo airlines to order.

Which aircraft are currently built by Boeing and Airbus?

Cargo is a lucrative source of income for airlines. Cargo does not need to be fed, watch movies, require flight attendants or even need to be kept warm. Cargo does, however, want to get to its destination as quickly as possible and shippers are willing to pay top dollar to do so.

Thus, many carriers choose to have their own cargo airlines as part of their main fleet. You can see a few examples here.

As mentioned above, there are only four brand new aircraft designs on the market. This is how they compare:

Aircraft Capacity Range
A330-200F 65 t (140,000 lb) 4,000 nmi / 7,400 km
767-300F 40 t (88,250 lb) 5,980 nmi / 11,070 km
777F 102 t (224,900 lb) 4,970 nmi / 9,200 km
747-8F 137 t (303,700 lb) 4,120 nmi / 7,630 km

These ranges listed are not exactly accurate, as the less cargo the aircraft shifts, the further it can fly. Additionally, airlines can also refurbish passenger aircraft into cargo aircraft. There are several reasons why doing this is a profitable idea:

  • The aircraft type is no longer profitable as a commercial passenger aircraft. For example, an older Boeing 747 might not be profitable compared to a Boeing 787, but cargo is just as profitable despite being an older aircraft.
  • The aircraft is too noisy for commercial routes in the modern era. Airport authorities update their rules and regulations as new aircraft become popular, encouraging airlines to phase out older models.
747
Older Boeing 747s are a excellent choice for airlines looking to invest in a cargo fleet. Photo: Wikimedia

What’s the problem?

The Boeing 767 has been with us for over 30 years; the Boeing 747 even more.

These aircraft designs are old and inefficient, and many are to be phased out as soon as 2022. Just as we saw with the Airbus A380 program, aerospace manufacturers want to cease producing aircraft designs if orders fall off.

In the case of the Boeing 747 and 767, there are practically no more commercial passenger orders and they are only surviving due to a few outstanding freight options. The Airbus A330-200 is old tech, and the Boeing 777 is about to launch into its next generation with the 777X.

The Boeing 777X is about to take its first flight. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What new designs are there?

One of the big problems with cargo aircraft is that they can’t fly very far. Unlike long-haul passenger aircraft that routinely fly the longest routes in the world, cargo aircraft don’t really push beyond 7,000 nmi.

Any future design would need to come into the market with this range focus in mind. Here are some aircraft models that could easily be turned into a cargo variant:

Airbus A350As discussed yesterday, the A350 is a great contender for the next generation of cargo aircraft. It has the capacity of a Boeing 777, but a massively improved range.

Boeing 787 – Surprisingly, Boeing has not offered a freighter version of their popular Dreamliner. The fuel savings of this aircraft might be tempting for cargo operators; it could be an easy win for Boeing.

Boeing 777X – The Boeing 777 freighter is a popular choice for airlines, with Qatar ordering five as recently as the 2019 Paris Air Show. Qatar CEO, Al Baker, was asked at the press conference if he would be interested in a Boeing 777X-F, which he replied, “we are always interested in new products from Boeing”. It would feature the excellent fuel savings of the 787 range plus the capacity close to a Boeing 787-8F.

Airbus A330-800neo – The last potential aircraft that would do well as a freight version is the A330-800neo. Airbus has struggled to sell this as a passenger aircraft, but maybe it would find new life as a cargo carrier. It would also be synergistic with the A350 and not cannibalise sales of the larger type.

What do you think? What do you see as the future of cargo aircraft? Let us know in the comments.

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Paul Spindler

With regard to your possible ‘new freighter’ designs. I though that putting a large cargo door in a composite fuselage was a very big challenge and while I am sure it’s possible to design such a fuselage it’s far more complex and costly than an aluminium one, which means it will only happen with a big order.

Nigel

Interesting point. However, the B787 and A350 (composite fuselages) both have underfloor cargo doors…so it probably wouldn’t be THAT difficult to put in additional cargo doors for the main deck.

Gary

A lot of cargo airlines dont really need that huge range. Efficiency is more important to them. For example, it is more cheaper for Cathay to fly cargo from HK to Chicago making a stop at Anchorage. Less fuel to carry, meaning more payload. Remember the 744ERF has more range than the 7478F. But the latter is way more efficient. Any other load that is time sensitive would be carried by underbelly cargo by passenger plane.

Marcus

There is five freighter variants of aircraft. Not four just to correct, there is also the boeing 737 Freighter variants in difftrent types. // Marcus

Prestwick Pioneer

Boeing do not market a new build 737 Freighter and no longer build the 737NG so no, only 4 new build types.

Joanna Bailey

The 737 freighter is actually the 737 BCF (Boeing converted freighter) – they are ex-passenger planes which are converted for cargo, so not newly built.

Alex B

Passenger converted freighters are way more popular at the moment – like the 737-800BCF for example, the future may depend more on converted freighters than new build freighters. Just think of all those aircraft sitting in the desert, although at the end of their passenger life they still have great potential as a freighter, costing a fraction of the price of a new aircraft. Yes, they may be older and require more maintenance, but they carry a similar load and cost a lot less to purchase. Only the 747-8F is slightly different, having the nose cargo door which can’t be… Read more »

Gretna

This is way beyond a beauty contest, or a short discussion on this forum. To start, an understanding of the air freight business and what needs to be considered for air cargo shipment, smart shippers go to great lengths to max to their advantage their ‘ “Billable or “chargeable” weight, which is the larger of gross weight (actual) or volumetric weight. This weight will always be used to determine shipping fees.’ See https://www.unicargo.com/understanding-volumetric-weight-can-save-money-avoid-business-nightmare/ . In my short conclusion, aircraft cargo volume capacity was not mentioned in your discussion and description of current and possible new cargo aircraft, which is of… Read more »

Nigel

Just a theory: it might be the case that a lot of the cargo market is now being served by underfloor cargo capacity on regular passenger flights — especially in view of the increasing number of point-to-point flights. Maybe there isn’t as much need for dedicated cargo planes as there once used to be?

Here2go

If you live in a country like Australia, New Zealand or Japan, freighters are essential.

Paulo M

At market density of 10 pounds per cubic foot, nothing comes close to the combination of efficiency, payload and range offered by either the 777F or 747-8F. In fact, there is no aircraft that matches the factory-built 747 freighter. The 747 line isn’t at risk of closing because, as this article wrongly claims, it is an old, inefficient aircraft. The issue is that the market has taken quite a few already, and there’s been a steady supply of passenger 747-400’s for conversion to freighter. Although not as capable as the factory-built 747 freighter – converted aircraft don’t get the nose… Read more »

Bob

After the 747 goes, how about a SpaceX Starship Freighter?