Not so long ago, new freighters were a rarity in the air cargo business. Possibly excepting the express operators, the consensus was that air cargo yields could not support the investment required for new aircraft. And besides, why bother buying new when there were plenty of retired passenger aircraft that could be converted at much lower cost?
There has been a shift in emphasis in recent years, however. Airbus and Boeing have launched production freighters and, before the 2009 downturn at least, attracted healthy orders for them. Meanwhile, during the downturn many converted freighters - aged Boeing 747-200s or McDonnell Douglas DC-10s - were dispatched to the desert, never to return, and demand for conversions of 747-400s evaporated.
The air freight industry finds itself, then, with an unusual number of new widebody freighters on order - 216, at the end of April - and in the next year or two will see the bulk of new maindeck capacity coming from this source. What difference will the new aircraft make to the business?
The first of the latest wave of new freighters was the Boeing 777-200LRF, which entered service in February 2009. Thirty-nine of these are now flying, for eight airlines, and a further 44 are on order. Although lessors account for 31 of the total, a number of these are effectively for specific airlines. Eight ordered by Deucalion, the investment fund advised by DVB Bank, are already in operation at Lufthansa-DHL joint venture carrier Aerologic, for example, and another eight ordered by Dubai Aerospace Enterprise are destined for Emirates, with two already in service.
Qatar Airways received its first Boeing 777 freighter in May last year
Like its passenger counterpart, the 777F shows every sign of being a popular aircraft. With a payload of 104t, it fits perfectly into the slots now occupied by 747-400Fs (110t payload) or the Boeing MD-11F (90t payload), while having much more range than both - 4,900nm (9,060km) versus 4,400nm for the 747-400 and 4,000nm for the MD-11.
MD-11 operators that have ordered the 777F include FedEx Express and Lufthansa. The latter carrier said in March that it would order five. These will be used in addition to rather than to replace the 19 MD-11Fs in its fleet. Lufthansa already has experience of the aircraft through the Aerologic joint venture. It uses Aerologic's 777Fs at weekends.
FedEx Express, meanwhile, already has 11 777Fs in service, and 16 more are on confirmed order. Alain Chaillé, its vice-president operations southern Europe and European hub manager, says the aircraft hugely boosts capacity on long-haul routes. "Nonstop from Paris to Guangzhou, the MD-11F only carries about 65t, while the 777 can operate at full payload because of its range," he says. Flying from Shanghai to Memphis, the 777F allows the elimination of a technical stop at Anchorage in Alaska.
Alongside its good long-haul performance, the 777F's flexibility also comes in for praise. Its 20-25% better fuel efficiency, compared with the 747-400F, or 20% improvement over the MD-11F, means it is viable for shorter routes too. Dileepa Wijesundera, senior vice-president cargo at Qatar Airways, says that as well as flying its two 777Fs to Chicago and Hong Kong, the airline also flies the type on regional routes to Africa and the Middle East.
Emirates also cites the 777F's ability to do both short- and long-haul routes, and sees it as the perfect complement to the 747-8Fs it has on order. Korean Air has also ordered both types, and Cathay Pacific is considering a similar mix. It has 10 747-8Fs on order, but director of cargo Nick Rhodes says it is also considering 777Fs and Airbus A330Fs. He sees their role as serving 60-100t regional markets, and as a pioneer for long-haul routes.
In March, Korean Air ordered two Boeing 747-8 freighters
None of this stops the 777F being an expensive aircraft, compared with a 747-400 conversion which might be had for $55million-60 million. It is perhaps no accident that Middle Eastern carriers, FedEx Express and lessors have dominated sales so far. But one vast advantage the aircraft has is its huge popularity in passenger fleets, which brings potential commonality in crewing and maintenance. By contrast, the fact that 747s are on the way out of passenger fleets is a big question mark hanging over the future of 747-400 conversions.
It is also a question for the 747-8 freighter, given that only Lufthansa and Korean have ordered the passenger variant. The freighter has 76 orders, while the passenger variant has clocked up 25. But can an aircraft that does not seem to be appealing to the passenger side of the business succeed as a freighter?
A factor is that the freighter has fewer orders now than it had in 2008 (when it had 78), one of the missing customers being US lessor Guggenheim, which cancelled its order - with great regret, it insists - due to production delays. And Dubai Aerospace Enterprise, on behalf of Emirates, will not be taking its 747-8s until 2013 or 2014, although it has increased its order from 10 to 15.
Emirates and Guggenheim insist that the 747-8 will be an excellent aircraft, however, and the freighter does have other heavyweight supporters. Cargolux, the launch customer with 13 orders, has been joined by Cathay, Nippon Cargo Airlines (14) and Korean (seven). Atlas Air, the New York-based ACMI operator that so popularised the 747-400F in the 1990s, has also taken a big bet on the aircraft, ordering 12 and taking 14 options.
Frank Reimen, chief executive of Luxembourg's Cargolux, certainly cannot wait to get his hands on the 747-8, delivery of which was originally supposed to happen in the third quarter of 2009, but is now - due to production and testing delays - predicted for July. Even this date is not fixed, however, with Boeing still refusing to precisely confirm it - or how many 747-8s it will deliver this year, or to whom.
Etihad Airways served as the Airbus A330-200F's launch customer
Nevertheless, Reimen is excited by the prospect of 16% more cargo volume than the 747-400F's - 140t, four more maindeck pallets, and a 5.6m (18.3ft)-longer maindeck. Since the 747-8F's tonne-kilometre costs are 16% lower than the 747-400's, it effectively carries this extra payload at the same overall trip cost.
He also stresses the importance of the nose door, something only the 747 production freighters can offer, and the 747-8's noise footprint, which is 30% less than the 747-400F's - a major factor for a carrier operating out of a noise-sensitive European airport such as Luxembourg.
Rhodes at Cathay, which is expecting to take delivery of six 747-8s this year, also thinks it will be "a game changer", referring to the extra payload and lower costs. But one thing both men admit is that the 747-8 will not offer any extra range, being able to cover the same distance at full payload as a 747-400.
It will also need to be operated on high-volume routes. That is fine for a carrier such as Cathay Pacific, with its long routes to the USA and Europe, but some question whether there will be enough of a market for such a big bird among other carriers.
"The problem is that you need to operate the aircraft for at least 450h a month, which very few carriers manage to achieve," says Stan Wraight, chief executive of Hong Kong consultancy Strategic Aviation Solutions International (SASI) and a former boss of Russian carrier Airbridge Cargo. He also points out that the 747-8's fuel efficiency only works at cruise, meaning it needs relatively long flight cycles to be efficient. "If you are doing short hops of five or six hours, why do you need a 747-8? You could have a 747-400 conversion instead for a fraction of the price."
Among those mired in this dilemma will be Atlas, which has so far only revealed one customer for its 747-8s - British Airways, which is to take three, presumably to replace three 747-400Fs it leases from Atlas. Michael Steen, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Atlas, says there are other customers interested, but will not say more, or even when Atlas will receive the first three -8s.
But he insists there is "huge demand" on Asia to US and Europe trade lanes, and sees the 747-8 being used between North and South America. Atlas is also betting that with 747-400s retiring from passenger fleets, carriers will not want to operate the freighters themselves, which will give Atlas, as the only ACMI operator, a captive market.
The 747-8F and the 777-200LRF are to some extent replacing existing freighter markets. The third new freighter coming on stream - the A330-200F - fits less easily into previous categories. With a payload of 70t over 3,200nm or 65t over 4,000nm, its nearest equivalent is the 767-300ERF, but in many ways the aircraft stands alone, trying to create a new market.
But which? It can be seen as a starter freighter - an aircraft to use when developing a route on which a 777F or 747-8F might later be deployed - or it can be seen as a bigger, better version of the Airbus A300-600F (49t over 2,450nm), which has been a popular regional freighter.
What market will prove the more successful for the A330F is not yet clear, partly because only five have been delivered, and because 42 of the 57 orders to date have been placed by lessors. That number has tumbled since 2008, when the A330F was the subject of something of a speculative investment bubble. Since then, Aircastle has cut its order from 15 to three, and mysterious orders from Alis Aerolinee Italiane and Flyington Freighters of India have failed to materialise. Some lessors - for example Guggenheim, which ordered six A330Fs - decided to take their aircraft as passenger versions instead.
That being said, demand for the aircraft among cargo operators is starting to grow. One market has been Turkish and Middle Eastern carriers, which regard the range and payload of the A330F as ideal for markets in Europe, Africa and Asia. Turkish Airlines has taken delivery of one of five it has ordered, and Turkish cargo airline MNG has four on order. Etihad was the launch customer, taking delivery of the first of two at the Farnborough air show in July 2010.
Two Aircastle A330Fs are flying for Hainan Airlines-owned Hong Kong Airlines, and will be joined by another, and five ordered by BOC Aviation seem destined for another carrier in the group, Yangtze River Express.
Initial deployment of the freighters seems to be on longer or larger regional routes. Hong Kong Airlines is using them to Delhi and Singapore, for example, though has also said it wants to extend the Delhi route to Brussels.
MASKargo, the cargo subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines, has ordered four A330Fs and views the aircraft as regional freighters, saying it plans to use them within Asia and especially to China.
Shahari Sulaiman, MASKargo managing director, says that the old pattern of Asian carriers operating widebodies on intra-Asian routes, generating plenty of belly cargo space, is being eroded by low-cost carriers. He sees the A330F as filling the gap.
The US lessor Intrepid, which has 20 on order but has not confirmed any customers, also expects the A330F to be used in this "extended regional" application, but also sees it as a good freighter for lower-volume, long-haul markets.
"It may not have the range of the 777F, but a lot of carriers have a tech stop for the 747-400F too," says Gerry Aubrey, Intrepid's chief leasing officer. "It has the same range as that aircraft, with a smaller payload but with twin-engine efficiency."
One wild card in the pack for both the A330F and the 777F might be the possibility of conversions being launched for either type. Last year EADS EFW, the Dresden-based freighter conversion arm of Airbus, was keen to launch an A330F conversion, but Airbus has so far refused to sanction it. Meanwhile, Boeing has declared willingness to consider 777 conversions, but has yet to identify any customers.
Both would face engineering challenges not encountered by conversions so far. The A330 has a tricky nosewheel problem that would be expensive to resolve and the 777 versions of an age for conversion would all have big penalties compared with the production freighters.
A further question is the future of the 747-400 conversion programme. A year ago, conversion lines and orderbooks were empty due to the economic situation; now carriers report an upsurge in interest.
As in the past, cheaper conversions may prove more attractive than expensive new freighters. But with 747s disappearing from passenger fleets, can the -400 freighter really be so popular as it was in the past?