Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

Boeing continues to predict a near-doubling of the world's jet freighter fleet by 2017 despite a short term slowdown in growth in the Asian market because of the spread of the current economic crises.

The company's biennial world air cargo forecast says 75% of the growth will be through conversions of passenger aircraft into freighters. The study predicts average, long-term, annual fleet growth of 6.4% (up by 0.2% on the previous estimate), with the fleet increasing by some 1,270 units over the next 20 years, to 2,700.

World air cargo traffic rose by 10.1% in 1997, but Boeing says last year's growth "-should not be taken as indicative of an underlying trend". It believes Asia's freight market will slow, but its growth rate will still lead the rest of the industry. The fastest growth, at 8.2%, will be with the intra-Asian freight markets. "The Asian economic flu has shaken the underlying confidence within this economic region. Expectations are for a recovery before 2000, but the risk is downside and may require a couple more years," says the company.

It is expected that less than 25% of the current fleet of 1,430 airliner-based freighters will still be in service in 2017. More than 2,200 freighters will have to be added to the fleet during the forecast period, including 550 widebody freighters with a payload greater than 65t (the Boeing 747 and MD-11), and 536 smaller widebody cargo aircraft (40-65t payload) such as the Boeing 767F or Airbus A300F.

In the 15 years since 1984, the Airclaims CASE database demonstrates that some 460 widebody freighters have entered the market through conversion of existing aircraft, and deliveries of new-build types (see chart). Boeing expects the popularity of converted freighters to increase over the next 20 years, but still sees demand for about 650 new freighters, worth $77 billion, during the period.

Much of the recent freighter demand, particularly for converted widebodies, has come from the international express parcel carriers, and Boeing expects this market to grow by about 18% a year. This will be at the expense of overseas freight and mail, elevating the international express business to almost 40% of the market by 2017, compared to 6%now.

Boeing highlights a developing market for "outsized" freighters, which can handle large payloads without disassembling the shipment. Boeing's offering is a civil version of the C-17, and Airbus has its Beluga Super Transporter. Russian types like the An-124 are also used in the market.

Source: Flight International