The 747 freighter has been the workhorse of the freighter industry for over 30 years. But is it now threatened by a new generation of large freighters and conversions?

Ever since the first delivery of the type to Lufthansa in March 1972, the Boeing 747 freighter has been the workhorse of the air cargo industry. And no wonder. It is the only western commercial aircraft to have been designed with freighter use in mind, incorporating such useful features as a nose door (on factory-built models) and a 3m (10ft) -high main deck (0.6m higher than other aircraft).

Its popularity as a freighter has been unquestioned ever since then. There have been 199 production versions delivered by Boeing over the decades, and including passenger-to-freighter conversions of the 747-200, more than 300 are in operation today.

The launch in October 2003 of passenger-to-freighter conversions of the 747-400, which is the 747-400SF or special freighter, also prompted something akin to a stampede among the world's carriers. Boeing has already received 22 firm orders with 19 options for its conversion programme, from carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Japan Airlines and Nippon Cargo Airlines. Rival Bedek, a division of Israel Aircraft Industries, has kept its orderbook close to its chest, but says it has enough interest to keep busy until 2007.

Yet the rush for the conversion also poses a problem for Boeing in that it risks killing off the remaining demand for new 747-400Fs. In addition, some carriers, Air France, Cargolux and Lufthansa among them, are already looking beyond the 747-400F and insisting a new-generation large freighter is needed, with better fuel economics and lower unit costs.

Boeing's response to the threat to its current production line is to point to 22 outstanding orders for new 747-400 freighters, and to insist that its nose door, and slightly superior payload and range, will remain attractive to some carriers. These may not be attractive enough, however. Of the 11 carriers with outstanding production freighter orders, Air France, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific and Korean Air have stated categorically that they will take no more of the aircraft, and Singapore Airlines has hinted it might switch to Boeing 777 or Airbus A380 freighters. Boeing also has only nine unfulfilled passenger orders for the 747-400 and has not had a new one since November 2002.

All of this suggests that despite its iconic status, the 747 production line may be coming to the end of its natural life – an event that would be awkwardly timed given that the A380 is about to take to the skies. Boeing had its alternative to the A380, of course – the 747X – a freighter version of which it pitched against the Airbus superjumbo. It got little firm interest, however, and dropped the concept in 2001.

The company is aware of pressure for a next-generation 747 freighter, however, and has been pitching the 747-400AF (Advanced Freighter) in the past year or two. This would have four extra main deck pallets and 16% increased payload, bringing it to 134t.

Boeing stresses that this payload figure excludes the weight of pallets and containers, which it says Airbus does include in its 150t payload figure for the A380F: with pallet weight included the 747-400AF would carry 140t. It would also benefit from 787 technology, such as new engines and lighter aluminium alloys, giving a 12% unit cost reduction or 20% over the A380F.

But does anyone want the aircraft? So far only Cargolux and China Airlines have openly said they do. Both carriers are stalwart 747-400F customers, having launched the type in 1993. Alex Wecker, Cargolux vice-president of fleet planning and technical contracts, says that with yields declining Cargolux needs an aircraft with lower unit costs. "The only way is to go for bigger aircraft, with better weights," he says. "On top of that are environmental issues – noise and possibly emissions charging."

For fleet commonality reasons, Wecker would prefer to purchase a souped-up 747. "We have looked at the A380, but it is a different philosophy in freight. It can only carry 8ft-high pallets and would need special loaders at each airport we operate to in order to reach the upper deck. Plus there is the problem of imbalance. We already struggle to fill the 747 in some markets." Another issue is that Cargolux would need to re-train its pilots for the A380.


Boeing insists it is talking to other carriers about the 747-400AF, but other factors could weigh against it. Boeing knows that the type would also need passenger orders to make it viable. In addition, it is questionable whether the Boeing board would approve a souped-up version of the -400 when the -400ERF (extended-range freighter) – a longer-range version of the -400F launched in 2001 – has won only 15 orders from three carriers, Air France, KLM and Korean Air, none of which show any sign of ordering more.

If the 747 production line closes, where does that leave large freighters? There are something like 450 conversion candidates for the 747-400, so supply will not dry up. But for new freighters, carriers would have to turn to next-generation aircraft – the 777 and the A380.

Boeing finally said it would offer the 777-200LR in a freighter version in late November. This is a precursor to board approval and a formal launch. It is hard to allay the suspicion that it was reluctant to roll out the freighter for fear of scotching further 747-400F orders. As late as mid-2004, it was refusing to discuss the aircraft as anything other than a distant possibility.

The 777F has strong potential for cargo, however. Its 101t payload is not far short of the 747's 110-120t, and its economics are excellent, with cargo density identical to the 747-400F, and 18% less fuel burn. It would also be the ideal replacement for the 85t Boeing MD-11 freighter, which is popular at present and which has been used by several carriers to replace 747 Classic freighters.

Prominent among them is Lufthansa Cargo, which retired the remaining five 747-200Fs in its fleet in 2004, and now operates only MD-11Fs. Alitalia is taking a similar step, EVA Air has a mainly MD-11 freighter fleet, and many other carriers around the world, including FedEx and UPS, are searching for MD-11s to convert.

EVA is tipped as a possible launch carrier for the 777F, and Air France is another carrier that is definitely interested, and admits it pressed Boeing to accelerate the launch. Its executive vice-president of cargo, Marc Boudier, says it wants the 777 to replace its remaining eight 747-200Fs. He estimates it would offer a saving of up to 40% on fuel burn, and would also be extremely quiet, a key factor in noise-sensitive Paris. Another argument is the aircraft's high commonality with the 777-300ERs in Air France's passenger fleet, for which it was the launch customer.

The A380 freighter is also not without its supporters. Airbus points out that for an aircraft that has not yet flown to have 27 freighter orders is a remarkable achievement. With a 150t cargo capacity, Airbus says it will offer a 20%-per-tonne reduction in direct operating costs compared with the 747-400, and 16% compared with the 777-200LRF.

A380 reservations

A problem for Airbus might be winning over the mainstream air cargo community, which has grown up with 747Fs. Wecker at Cargolux is not alone in his reservations. Other conventional cargo carriers make similar points about the A380F, but express carriers are a different matter. Of the current tally of 27 A380 freighter orders, 10 each come from FedEx and UPS. Of the remaining seven, five are for lessor ILFC, and two for Emirates, although the latter continues to see leased 747Fs as the backbone of its freighter fleet.

Apart from its need for a triple-deck cargo high loader that has not yet been invented, arguments against the A380 tend to focus on its inability to take 3m-high pallets, but Airbus points out that the 777 can only take such pallets when reconfigured, a significant disadvantage when interlining. Airbus also notes that the A380F has plenty of volume in other ways, 50% more than the 747-400F, for example. "It offers multiple configurations according to what type of cargo is transported. The A380F contour is more optimised, uses industry standard pallets, and can be interlined directly with all freighters currently flying."

It can also be argued that the air cargo industry is resistant to the A380F just because it is unfamiliar. The 747 required similar adjustments in thinking when it came out, supporters of the aircraft point out. There is also one other argument in the A380's favour – that it is proving popular as a passenger aircraft in freighter operating airlines. Of the 11 carriers that have so far ordered the passenger A380, only Virgin Atlantic does not operate any freighters.

It is not implausible to see some of these carriers opting for the A380F in the future, particularly if 747-400Fs continue to be phased out of passenger fleets. "Right now, the argument favours 747-400 conversions because these are common in the passenger fleet," points out Bob Dahl, project director for consultancy the Air Cargo Management Group in Seattle. "But in 10 years' time it might easily favour the A380 or 777 for the same reasons."


Source: Airline Business