The global travel downturn disrupted supply channels, putting a fresh focus on the role airlines play in flying cargo. Flying a good portion of the world’s cargo has always been an important, if overlooked, part of operations at most airlines. But cargo is now firmly in the spotlight and airlines are moving to make the most of it as commercial passenger flights, particularly on long-haul international sectors, remains significantly down on 2019 levels.
Preighters a short term fix for a longer-term cargo capacity problem
Recently, Cirium published a paper on the state of air cargo. “Fueling Momentum” details how many passenger airlines have adapted aircraft to fly cargo. In particular, the report dives into preighters, the term cooked up by Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr to describe the temporary conversion of passenger aircraft into freighters.
Cirium says 200 aircraft have had their seats temporarily removed to make space for cargo. Widebodies make up the bulk (81.5%) of this fleet. Cirium states 63 Airbus A330s and 68 Boeing 777s have been flying as preighters.
Forty-seven, or 23.5%, of those 200 planes belong to Chinese airlines, with China Eastern Airlines alone temporarily converting 19 of its A330s into preighters. The remaining 28 aircraft are spread over nine Chinese airlines. Cirum’s Bin He says this happened because cargo demand remained strong in China when airlines cut back on passenger flights. Consequently, a short term solution was needed – preighters.
Other airlines investing significantly in temporary conversions are Lufthansa (ten A330s) and Emirates (18 Boeing 777s). Emirates says their 777 preighters can fly 17 tonnes of cargo on the main passenger deck. While the demand for PPE and medical supplies has softened, general cargo demand remains strong.
Driving much of that growth is e-commerce, growing in the air cargo sector by 27.6% annually and showing no signs of slowing down. Time-sensitive and perishable cargo like flowers, fruits and vegetables are also being stowed on passenger decks on many planes.
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Preighter numbers remain reasonably steady
Cirium says preighter conversions peaked last June but have since held relatively stable. Some planes have resumed flying passengers. Offsetting that, other airlines have since done preighter conversions.
“Early in the pandemic, there was an urgent need to move cargo quickly. Now that things have settled down, airlines are looking at how to move cargo cost-effectively,” says Cirum’s Chris Seymour.
In the first six months of 2020, 116 preighter conversions occurred. In the second six months of the year, 32 conversions occurred. Up until the end of May 2021, 25 planes have been temporarily converted into preighters this year.
Not everyone onboard the preighter trend
Qatar Airways has quickly grown to become one of the world’s biggest cargo operators. But CEO Akbar Al Baker is against the idea of preighters, saying the cost of conversion is too high when you can simply secure cargo onto existing seats.
Qatar is eyeing ordering more dedicated freighters. With widebody aircraft in the highest demand for international cargo flights, Airbus is reportedly considering launching a freighter version of their A350.
At Boeing, the options are the 767, the 777 and potentially the 777X down the track. But the cargo squeeze is on now and airlines can’t afford to wait a decade for a new plane to be developed. With cargo capacity constrained and likely to remain so for some years, most aviation insiders agree preighter conversions will continue to happen for a few years yet.