US cargo carrier Southern Air is placing into service at the end of this week the first of at least six Boeing 777F freighters, initially operating the new aircraft type from a base in Bangkok as part of a wet-lease contract with Thai Airways International.
Southern Air chief executive Daniel McHugh says the carrier took delivery of its first 777F in early February and, following the completion of US Federal Aviation Administration-supervised proving flights in the USA, will be ferried to Bangkok this week ahead of a 27 February launch of revenue services.
He adds that a second 777 will be delivered to Southern on 2 March and will also be operated for Thai, which signed last year a two-year wet-lease contract fully covering Southern's first two 777s.
© Southern Air
US cargo carrier has wet leased at least six 777F's to Thai Airways International
Both aircraft are being sourced through 12-year operating leases from OH Aircraft Acquisition, a leasing company in the portfolio of Southern owner Oak Hill Capital. A US-based private equity firm, Oak Hill in early 2007 established a leasing subsidiary and ordered six 777Fs. Later in 2007 Oak Hill acquired Southern.
Southern now operates 12 Boeing 747-200s and three 747-300s, with roughly two-thirds of its revenues coming from its main wet-lease business and the remainder generated from a mix of civil and military charters. McHugh says Southern has no plans to phase out or even shrink its 747 Classic fleet and sees the 777 as complementary.
McHugh says that over the past six months Southern has already been operating one of its 747-200s from Bangkok as part of the initial phase in Thai's new cargo expansion plan. The next phase will involve Southern's two 777s operating from Bangkok to Frankfurt and "probably" to Amsterdam.
McHugh says Thai may also later use Southern's 777s to launch cargo flights to Australia and North America. Thai has said a future phase of its new cargo strategy is likely to also involve the carrier, which in recent years has been mainly relying on passenger aircraft belly space, operating its own freighters.
Southern becomes the fifth 777F operator after Air France, Emirates, LAN and AeroLogic and the first 777F wet-lease operator. Southern initially unveiled plans to operate a fleet of 10 777Fs. McHugh says this plan has since been modified in response to the economic downturn and at this point Southern only has six 777s in its formal fleet plan. But he expects the plan at some point will again include 10 aircraft and that Southern is confident there will be demand over the long term for even a larger 777 fleet.
McHugh says the final four 777Fs from Oak Hill's 2007 order are now tentatively scheduled for delivery in late 2011 and 2012. But he says the exact timing of these deliveries and possible expansion of the 777 fleet beyond the initial six aircraft hinges on market demand.
"In the next few months we're in discussions with multiple customers. I'm more than cautiously optimistic that the demand is there," McHugh said in an interview with Flightglobal.