A doubling of the world's freighter fleet over the next 20 years is being forecasted by the Air Cargo Management Group (ACMG) consultancy even as the industry takes a near-term hit from the global economic crisis.

During a recent workshop in Seattle, ACMG predicted that some 3,472 freighters will be needed for growth and replacement from 2009 through 2028 "with [a] continuing shift to widebodies".

This reflects a baseline growth of 6% annually or about 170 freighters per year.

China is among the countries anticipated to require the most cargo lift. "If domestic China grows 10% per year as predicted, by 2028 this market will be larger than the domestic US air cargo market is today," says ACMG managing director Robert Dahl.

Trans-Pacific air freight, with roughly 7% annual growth, "will be as large in 2028 as the total global international market is today, says Dahl, noting that the intra-Asia air freight market "will be as big as the combined trans-Pacific and transatlantic markets are now".

Finally, Latin American air freight - to and from the US and Europe - is expected to triple in size "retaining its combined 6% share of the global total", adds Dahl.

The total freighter lift requirement will create a $25 billion market for the passenger-to-freighter conversion business, of which $11.23 million will constitute large widebody conversions, according to ACMG.

The main large-aircraft conversion candidate for the period 2009-2013 will be the Boeing 747-400. From 2014 through 2018, the 747-400 will be joined by the 777 as candidates.

A severe decline in air freight demand since the fourth quarter of 2008 has dampened near-term prospects for the industry. However, freighter deliveries and conversions are expected to continue even with lower rates of growth in the air freight market.

ACMG's low-growth scenario - equating to 3% to 4% annually - still sees a need for more than 100 freighters per year.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news