February 03, 2014
Credit: Katie Lomax / Boeing Photographer
Just a decade ago, prospects for the air cargo market were bright—so good in fact that in 2005 the 747-8F became the first new Boeing jet airliner to be launched as a pure freighter before the passenger version.
With recovery getting underway following traumatic downturns in cargo traffic in 2001 and despite a more modest dip in 2003, it seemed the industry was on the rebound as Boeing prepared for the go-ahead of the 747-8F. Confidence was boosted by numbers from the previous year showing global air freight had grown 3.9%. The most dramatic gains were in Asia—particularly within China, where cargo by air expanded by an astonishing 9.4% in just a year. Intra-Asia routes similarly saw a 6.7% rise, while Asia-Europe traffic climbed by 6.1%.
Spurred by these optimistic signs, Boeing forecast the cargo fleet would grow to 3,450 by 2023, passing 2,600 by 2013-14. Crunching the numbers in those days of optimism, Boeing projected that of the 3,450-strong fleet, just around 500 would be old survivors from the 2000s. Of the remaining 2,950 freighters, the majority of those “new” units entering the fleet would be conversions, and more than 700 would be all-new aircraft. Breaking it down even further, the company felt confident that more than half of this newly built fleet would be made up of some 436 “large” freighters—aircraft that are capable of hauling 65 tons or more, such as the Boeing 747.
Today, Boeing forecasters are the first to agree with Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who once famously said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.” The intervening years have witnessed unprecedented turbulence in the air cargo market. Although overall annual growth could theoretically be pegged at 5.4% by graphing out the numbers back to 1982, severe slowdowns and even reversals hit the market in 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2011-2012. Annual traffic as measured in revenue tonne kilometers (RTK) approached 200 billion by 2013, well below the 300 billion RTKs of the base estimates made by Boeing a decade before.
The stark reality was that by the end of 2012 the actual world cargo fleet stood at 1,730, smaller than the 1,766 aircraft in the fleet in 2003. However, a big difference behind the numbers—particularly for Boeing's focus on the larger new-build fleet such as the 777F and 747-8F—was the growing proportion of bigger aircraft. In 2003, these made up 24% of the fleet, a figure that rose to more than 31% by 2012 as the number of smaller narrowbody freighters began to see a relative decline. In Boeing's latest forecast, this trend is set to continue, with bigger aircraft making up more than 35% of the 2,810-strong feet predicted to be flying in 2032.
Boeing now forecasts a demand for 2,300 new aircraft in the fleet, of which 1,450 will be conversions. The remaining 850 will be all new-build aircraft, some 640 of which will be in the Boeing 777F-747-8F category. But is the reality showing any signs of meeting these expectations, and how much longer will the 747-8F production line be forced to survive at its current rate of 1.5 per month? The lower rate, announced in October, will be maintained through 2015, and it followed previous slow-downs from a 1.75 rate announced in April and a 25% decline in production from the levels at the start of 2013.
There are hopeful signs, according to Boeing's cargo marketing regional director, James Edgar. “We are feeling a little better about the marketplace,” he says. “After worldwide air cargo market weakness since mid-2011, industry data shows improvement beginning early last year with the return of an actual 'peak' in the fall. We expect full-year 2013 results to show positive growth after two consecutive years of decline.