“Preighters” days numbered, but air cargo saved us all

Well you knew they’d get a made up name sooner or later! Passenger airliners converted to, or being used for cargo freighter use are fast seeing their days of useful service decline.

Air cargo companies back in January were moaning about a bad run up to 2019 peak season, low profits and decommissioning freighters because demand had slumped and rates had fallen.

By February things were looking odd, with China in lockdown and shipping rates from Asia to the US and Europe spiking. By March the demand for PPE in Europe shot through the roof. Millions of units were being used per day, billions were being ordered, and competition for air freight space – entire aircraft were being booked out at fees approaching US$1.5m for a one way 744F from Malaysia to Europe. Capacity was so poor that the UK and US amongst others started, deploying C-17’s to collect orders from supplying countries.

AAI was making its money from wet leasing, now its done a 180 back to cargo

Airlines faced with a zero passenger demand and hundreds of grounded aircraft realised that goods and services, from fruit and vegetables to PPE and Apple’s new iPhone SE, all needed to be shipped and just about every cargo freighter that could fly was already maxed out.

So the airlines jumped on board, cramming their seats, over head bins, and belly cargo to the brim as makeshift freighters. And for one or two airlines it has probably saved them from disaster, keeping at least some cash flow going during times of almost desperate need.

There’s been a little bit of PR cynicism over the whole thing of course, dressing it up as doing their bit to ‘help the country’, when the real motivation was actually keeping the cash rolling in to stave off bankruptcy or massive losses, but lets not let reality get in the way of a positive PR message!

Swiss put 4 773ER’s, several A220’s and an A343 into cargo use

Demand now however is starting to reduce substantially. Many of the fully converted seats-out passenger liners have probably come along a bit late in the day to be useful.

Lufthansa Cargo for example see their backup of ‘preighters’ departing as soon as mid-June, maybe sooner. The company is still disposing of its last MD-11F’s by years end and is taking on two new 777F’s before that happens.

Even so, as an example of what the underlying cargo market is actually like, they’re operating at just 55% of their normal business levels. So why did preighters even end up used?

An A350-1000 shoved full of PPE

The Majority of cargo operators fly scheduled services, some contracted months in advance, have a percentage of space allocated to them on a regular basis. Some will be used for spot cargo – effectively on-demand services. These customers rely on regular services they can trust. So operators like Lufthansa still have those to operate – but the demand for space is much lower. Meanwhile big bulk shipments like PPE that require a rotating door system – One flight out empty to Malaysia (the worlds largest mask supplier) pick up masks and fly home, repeat, that demand is high. That demand is easily met by passenger aircraft stuffed with boxes.

So was demand high for fruit and vegetables from Africa, Central and South America as well as the warmer parts of the Mediterranean basin, to the UK and Europe, sending prices in shops far higher, but that was mostly on contracted freighters, growers desperate to ship stock before it rotted and before the supplying countries themselves became Covid hot-spots – Kenya being one example.

The problem for the preighter operators now is that they will quickly find they don’t have enough business to sustain operations, but also not enough passengers to utilise the aircraft in the proper role. June-July is going to be a testing time.

KLM had to bring back three of its 744M’s to cope with PPE needs flying Amsterdam-Shanghai as rotating air bridge

However good has come out of it. The worlds cargo airlines are often forgotten. The public seems far more aware of them now. Airbus was quick to works on formalising plans to allow everything from a TAP A339 to an A350-1000 to be converted to freighter use safely.

The world has learnt what it needs to do if this happens again. And so far predictions made in the late 1990’s that we would face a pandemic roughly every ten years have proven to be worryingly on the money. SARS, MERS, Swine Flu and now SARS-Cov2 which creates the Covid19 illness, just a start of what might come next.

Air cargo may not be glamorous or much loved, but every one of us in The West, and many in Africa, Asia and the America’s would have been far worse off without it, preighters and all.