Fears are growing that the world's cargo airlines could be facing the threat of significant overcapacity towards the end of the decade if global economic growth fails to keep pace with projections.

The ongoing European Union debt crisis and slowing growth in markets such as China and India could leave freight aircraft operators grappling with excess capacity of nearly 9% by 2016, according to the Seattle-based Air Cargo Management Group (ACMG).

Between 2012 and 2016, annual air freight traffic is forecast to grow by an "increasingly optimistic" 4.9%, while widebody air freight capacity is on a trajectory to grow at 5% per year, says ACMG. However, if demand increases by only 3% per year, the industry could be facing excess freighter capacity of 8.9% by 2016, it adds.

Meanwhile, the widebody freighter order backlog is at an historically high level of 206 aircraft, according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online database (see table).

ACMG is presents a model of "production restraint" as a method of managing capacity, which could include deferrals or cancellations of some orders for new-build aircraft on backlog to address the overcapacity threat.

The International Air Transport Association reported in June that belly hold capacity is forecast to grow by 13% in 2013.

"Asset utilization has been declining in the air freight industry and maintaining it will continue to be a challenge as new aircraft enter the market," says IATA.

ACMG predicts that if annual traffic growth fails to exceed 3%, levels of passenger-to-freighter conversions could fall by 60% and operators would likely opt for early retirements of aircraft like Boeing MD-11Fs and 747-400Fs.

Flightglobal Insight's latest Commercial Fleet Forecast predicts that the active world freighter fleet will increase to more than 4,000 aircraft by 2031, including around 2,500 widebodies.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news