The imminent launch of a new low-cost cargo operator between Europe and China is causing concern to other freighter operators on the route.

Air Bridge Cargo will be the first conventional Boeing 747 freighter airline in Russia and is the realisation of a long-held ambition of Alexey Isaikin, founder of Russian Antonov-124 airline Volga-Dnepr. It will start services on 3 April with two 747-200Fs, linking Shanghai and Tianjing in China with Luxembourg in Europe, via Moscow and Novosibirsk in Russia. The carrier plans to find strategic partners in each region, and has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Luxembourg-based Cargolux to share networks.

The new carrier will have several advantages over existing operators. It will be able to use the shorter trans-Siberian routes without paying high Russian overflight charges, and will have access to cheap Russian fuel and lower crew wages. Longer term, Isaikin is also hopeful of setting up a maintenance operation for 747s in Russia to further trim costs.

Another advantage for the carrier will be access to plentiful traffic rights into the Chinese market, which is the key growth market for all cargo airlines at present. Stan Wraight, a former senior executive with US cargo operator Atlas Air and now executive director of Air Bridge, says the carrier already has rights to regional markets in China. Some of these will initially be operated by Russian-built Il-76 or Tu-204 freighters into Novosibirsk, connecting with 747 flights to Europe.

Air Bridge will also be able to counter the imbalance in traffic flows between China and Europe - estimated at 3 to 1 in China's favour - by feeding cargo from Europe into Russia. Wraight says the booming Russian economy is creating strong inbound demand, particularly in the oil industry, but also for consumer goods. Ultimately, there are plans to use Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East as the launch point for flights from China to the USA, though even greater trade imbalance on the transpacific - as much as 7 to 1 in China's favour - makes this a less attractive market at present.

In all, Wraight says the new carrier expects to operate "at least" 10 747Fs within a few years.

Source: Airline Business