Cargolux sees growth potential in keeping 747-400s

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Cargolux plans to keep Boeing 747-400 freighters as spare capacity as the Luxembourg-based freight operator wants to become more flexible to market fluctuations in future.

The carrier - which began replacing its former all-747-400F fleet with the larger 747-8F in 2011 - intended to retain a number of the older type as part of its core fleet. But interim chief executive Richard Forson has told Flightglobal Pro that the company now wants to sell fewer of the -400s than previously planned to create additional capacity that can be deployed on demand.

The idea is to keep aircraft at an age of 10-12 years - which have been paid off and will not suffer significant further depreciation - as additional capacity without generating high costs when they are unused. But the aircraft must still be able to make a "positive contribution" to the operation, says Forson, without excessive maintenance costs.

Five or six 747-400Fs are to be retained as the main fleet is being replaced over the next three years.

"Traditionally Cargolux would have looked for buyers for those aircraft," says Forson. "Now [there is an] opportunity to have those aircraft as flexible capacity that can be utilised at very short notice or left on the ground at minimal cost."

This is to avoid capacity shortages as Cargolux experienced in 2010. After air cargo volumes dramatically fell in 2009, the carrier was caught out with a "significant gap between demand and supply" when the market picked up the following year.

Apart from severe market fluctuations at the time, Forson says that the capacity squeeze was partly due to the 747-8 programme delays. The type was originally scheduled to be delivered from 2009.

Forson expects the cargo market to continue to ebb and flow in future, albeit less strongly as it did in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. "I think long-term volatility will come down. But there will be instances, specific events, that will bring back volatility. That's where flexibility is going to be required."

More flexibility and lower costs are also the objective for the pending labour agreement negotiations. Forson says that the carrier does not plan to outsource services, such as its in-house MRO operations. But the company wants to raise staff productivity and thus become able to grow its business without increasing costs.

No additional aircraft orders are currently being planned beyond the 13 firm and two optional 747-8Fs that were placed in 2005/2006, says Forson. But he adds that the 747-400F could still play a role in growing the airline's "market presence".

According to Flightglobal's Ascend Online database, Cargolux operates 10 747-400Fs and six 747-8Fs at the moment. The -400s comprise two Pratt & Whitney PW4056-powered Boeing-converted freighters - built in 1989 and 1990 - and eight Rolls-Royce RB211-powered purpose-built freighters with an average age of 10 years.