Global cargo flights explore new avenues

In today’s global economy, cargo businesses are increasingly relying on streamlining efficient logistics solutions to expand their reach and capitalize on international trade opportunities. This is where the freighters come into the scene to play a significant role in creating an international business link.

Ritika Arora Bhola

Moving cargo from one destination to another—safely and timely—is the need of the hour, and to meet the increased demand, global freighters are preparing to expand their network and reach, add to belly capacities, and provide resilience and operational efficiency.

In 2023, top air cargo carriers such as Air Canada Cargo, Qatar Airways Cargo, Lufthansa Cargo, Turkish Cargo, Oman Air, among others, have not only added freighters to their fleet but have also explored new destinations. In fact, to tap the rising potential of the Indian market. A few carriers have also launched maiden freighters—the infrastructure has improved to carry all types of cargo from bulk, heavy load, pharma, perishables, automobiles, to electronics and retail.

The airlines have invested in enhancing digital and physical infra. Emphasis has been laid on adopting sustainable practices worldwide. Despite the global economic crises and wars—freighters are moving towards recovery and are charting a sustainable pathway of growth and optimism in 2024 and beyond. Let us delve into some of the recent expansions.

Addition to existing fleet

Lufthansa Cargo offers its customers 83 weekly connections with its existing fleet of 16 Boeing 777 freighters for international destinations as listed in this year’s winter flight schedule. It markets the belly capacities of as many as 6,000 flights operated by Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Discover Airlines
and SunExpress.

“The fleet is likely to increase to 18 freighters during the winter flight schedule. Final decision on further destinations would be finalized once we decide on a network that best meets our market requirements and customer demand,” said Shankar Iyer, Director, South Asia, Sales & Handling, Lufthansa Cargo.

Since November, the fourth A321 freighter has been operating in Lufthansa Cargo’s network, making a significant contribution to the carrier’s expansion plans. “We are regularly evaluating its performance to ensure it is in line with our operational standards and market requirements. When it comes to network changes for our A321F, it is adapting its routine to continue to respond to market needs, he added.

“We will operate twice-a-week freighter service to Mumbai via Sharjah from 15 January 2024. The newly inducted Boeing 737-800 freighter will operate on this route. On the Nairobi-Sharjah-Mumbai-Nairobi air route, we are planning to expand the frequency to four times a week. Kenya Airways, which inducted the aircraft in November 2023, is planning to add a second B737-800 freighter in February 2024,” Peter Musola, Head, Cargo Commercial, Kenya Airways, announced.

This will take its freighter fleet to four; it is already operating two Boeing 737-300 freighters, primarily for the Africa region. With a range of up to seven hours, the new aircraft will offer 20 tonnes of cargo capacity to and from the Nairobi hub. Kenya Airways already operates passenger service twice a day to Mumbai with its Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which has a belly capacity of one tonne.

“The products transported include pharma, spare parts, machinery, high tech, consumer goods and electronics. India is a strong manufacturing country and is on its way to becoming a manufacturing giant. Most of the products transported from India to Africa are in demand there and we want to leverage this as an airline.” He pointed out 20 per cent of all pharma products manufactured in India end up in Africa. “Kenya Airways is looking to tap this potential business,” Musola added.

Talking about expanding its services to the country, Kenya Airways is considering Mumbai International Airport as its entry point to India even as it is exploring other opportunities, including new Indian destinations. “We are not servicing our customers in the Mumbai market because we are only offering belly capacity, which is limited. So, we will first grow that segment and once it is developed, we will expand our network,”
he added.

While the Nairobi-based airline is planning to extend its fleet, operations, and destinations, in a recent December 2023 update, Kenya Airways stating that it is expecting disruptions, stated grounding of aircraft is also possible, due to shortage of spare parts.

Oman Air freighters from Hyde Airport

Oman Air launched its maiden freighter service from GMR Hyderabad International Airport, operating its first Boeing B737-800BCF connecting Hyderabad and Muscat. The freighter will operate biweekly—on Tuesday and Saturday. The flight will depart Hyderabad at 14:00 hours. With a one-way capacity of 22 MT, the freighter will add additional weekly capacity of 88 MT from Hyderabad airport. This service is poised to boost pharmaceuticals and hatching eggs shipments from the city.

Pradeep Panicker, CEO, GMR Hyderabad International Airport, said, “Oman Air freighters from Hyderabad will not only connect our diverse industries and thriving market within the city, but will also provide opportunities for businesses in the surrounding areas access the global market. As international air cargo demand continues to grow, we have developed infrastructure and innovative capabilities, digital solutions, and
added multiple value additions. We look forward to adding more cargo routes in the coming years.”

The Sultanate of Oman is an importer of hatching eggs from India. With this new link, Oman Air expects a surge in exports of hatching eggs from Hyderabad, leveraging the city’s large hatchery infrastructure. This new connectivity will boost pharma exports to Oman and to the USA and Europe with Muscat serving as a transhipment hub. The Middle East is a major importer of fruits and vegetables. This freighter would enhance exports of fruits and vegetables from the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to the Middle East.

The GMR Hyderabad Airport Cargo serves multiple multinational companies across the pharmaceuticals, perishable, engineering, automobile, aerospace, and leather industries. Apart from all major cargo hubs in India, destinations such as Frankfurt, Istanbul, Dubai, Doha, and Hong Kong are well connected with the Hyderabad International

JAL to launch freighter from Feb

Japan Airlines is all set to launch dedicated freighter operations in February 2024 as it announced its first Boeing 767-300ER freighter converted from its passenger fleet. Tokyo-headquartered JAL said the freighter will operate from Tokyo Narita and Nagoya to Taipei, Incheon International Airport, Seoul, as well as Shanghai Pudong. Operations are scheduled to begin on February 19. The airline is set to add a further two 767-300 freighter conversions, as per its plans announced in May this year.

“The freighters operation will enhance stable and flexible air transportation capabilities, ensuring a steady supply. The development of a network strategy based on growing demand will ensure the satisfaction of customer needs and contribute to the sustainable development of the logistics infrastructure,” stated JAL. The service marks a return to the freighter market after an absence of 13 years as the airline aims to grow in the cargo and mail business.

Efforts to step up SAF production

Boeing is accelerating its efforts to scale up SAF production, which serves as the industry’s significant lever in reducing carbon emissions. Focus areas include Boeing’s efforts to catalyze collaboration, research, and policy development around SAF, which can reduce lifecycle CO2 up to 85 per cent. “We are deepening our collaborative work across the globe in pursuit of a world with more SAF,” said Chris Raymond, Chief Sustainability Officer, Boeing. “SAF holds the potential to reduce aviation’s emissions, and we are focused on continuing to innovate and collaborate to unlock/increase the production of SAF around the world.” The key challenges to more usage of SAF are limited supply and high cost. Currently, use of SAF represents 0.1 per cent of global jet fuel demand.

Boeing’s 2024 plans

  1. Bring energy producers and aviation leaders in the UAE together to form a consortium called Air-CRAFT to accelerate research, scaling and production of renewable and advanced aviation fuels in the country and beyond.
  2. Launch an initiative with the USA to catalyze the development and use of SAF among Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member countries.
  3. Announce a collaboration with zero petroleum for testing and analyzing the Next Generation technologies to accelerate the supply of SAF.
  4. Support discussions at ICAO’s Third Conference on Aviation Alternative Fuels, where the governments from 100 countries have set a goal—aviation fuel in 2030 should be 5 per cent less carbon intensive than conventional jet fuel.
  5. Join the Corporate Coalition for Innovation & Technology toward Net Zero, a cross-sector business alliance dedicated to helping countries to meet decarbonization and climate change goals through innovation and technology.
  6. Provide technical expertise on the first cent per cent SAF flight across the Atlantic on a commercial jetliner—Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This was a Virgin Atlantic-led project, funded by the UK Department for Transport.
  7. Sign an agreement with Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy company, to advance and support the development and adoption of SAF policies in the UAE
    and beyond.
  8. Boeing seeks to build on this momentum at COP28 and continue its focus to help scale SAF globally.
  9. Industry collaboration and policy advocacy: Boeing continues to work with consulting firms, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations to conduct studies in more than a dozen countries to identify viable pathways for producing SAF, using local feedstock solutions. One collaboration, with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, explores SAF feedstock opportunities in Southeast Asia, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Brazil.
  10. Investments in product compatibility work: Boeing is mobilizing its supply chain to complete the testing necessary to ensure Boeing commercial airplanes are 100 per cent SAF-compatible by 2030.
  11. SAF purchases: Since 2022, Boeing has agreements to purchase 7.6 million gallons of SAF for its USA.

New freighter to enter MSC fleet

Atlas Air has announced that it has taken delivery of a Boeing 777 freighter, which it will operate on behalf of its customer, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company SA, as part of a previously announced long-term aircraft, crew, maintenance, insurance (ACMI) agreement. This is the third of four Boeing 777 freighters that Atlas Air will operate for MSC, which will complement the existing weekly service and add an additional route from Hong Kong to Dallas/Fort Worth.  The fourth aircraft is likely to be delivered later this year. “The delivery of the new 777 freighter is a proud moment for Atlas and testament to our long-term strategic partnership with MSC,” Richard Broekman, Chief Commercial Officer, and Head of Sustainability, Atlas Air Worldwide, said. “We are proud to support the ongoing expansion of MSC’s air cargo solution by providing additional speed, flexibility, and reliability to their existing network. We look forward to this third 777 freighter entering into the MSC fleet and will welcome the arrival of the fourth later this year.”

Interline agreement with dronamics

Qatar Airways Cargo announced an interline agreement with Dronamics, allowing the extension of the networks of both partners and increasing their reach as well as providing access to areas previously difficult to reach by traditional air freight. Through the agreement, Dronamics would offer cargo services from its droneports, initially in Greece, to the wider Qatar Airways Cargo network, including destinations such as Singapore, China, including Hong Kong, and the USA. Qatar Airways Cargo can access remote locations that Dronamics serves, such as the Greek islands, on the Dronamics cargo drone network.

“As a part of our VISION 2027 five-year strategy, we are committed to remaining at the forefront of our industry by embracing new disruptive technology. It is also within our DNA to support young ambitious companies such as Dronamics and looking forward to seeing what the future holds for this business. “It is a milestone in the advancement of autonomous cargo drone transportation, and we are proud to be the first international airline to offer this service,” Elisabeth Oudkerk, Senior Vice President, Cargo, Sales & Network Planning, Qatar Airways Cargo, said.

Turkish Airlines to modernize its fleet

Turkish Airlines, one of the biggest in the Middle East, has placed an order for 220 aircraft from Airbus: it is looking to modernize its fleet. The purchase, described as a “landmark order” by the airline, is a major expansion strategy on the airline’s two previous Airbus orders this year, and is split across the manufacturer’s A321 and A350 families, with 150 and 70, respectively.

“The addition of these advanced Airbus aircraft to our fleet will not only enhance our operational capabilities but also contribute to our environmental goals. This investment is a milestone in the evolution of Turkish aviation industry.  By modernizing our fleet with efficient and eco-friendly aircraft, we are reinforcing our leading position in global aviation sector and contributing to the nation’s prominence as an aviation hub,” said Dr Ahmet Bolat, Chairman, Board and Executive Committee,
Turkish Airlines.

Alongside the 150 A321neo aircraft, the airlines order will include 50 A350-900s, 14 A350-100s and five A350F freighters, taking its orderbook with Airbus to 504, though 212 have already been delivered.  The addition of new freighter craft is in line with the news from earlier this year that Turkish Airline’s cargo branch, Turkish Cargo, had become the third biggest cargo carrier in the world, according to IATA data, with 5.4 per
cent of the market share in May 2023.

carrier growing freighter division

Air Canada remains committed to growing its startup freighter division, Michael Rousseau, Chief Executive Officer, said. Air Canada reported a 24 per cent drop in Q3 cargo revenue compared to the same period last year, to US$155.5 million (CA$215 million), due to lower yields caused by weak market conditions. The air cargo industry is coping with an 18-month contraction from the pandemic crises, exacerbated by excess capacity from the reintroduction of international passenger flights. Cargo revenue of US$491.7 million was 30 per cent lower for the nine months through September.

The Canadian flag carrier in September switched an order for two factory-built 777 widebody freighters to 787-10 passenger jets. “We have not changed our strategy. We are still committed and excited about growing the freighter business, and we have run and will continue to run a strong belly business,” Rousseau said.

“We cancelled two 777 freighters because it was too early to add them into our network. We are looking to expand our business and build it over time,” he added. Air Canada Cargo operates six Boeing 767-300s converted cargo aircraft. It would receive one more freighter by this year-end and two more in 2024. The planes are PAX flights retired from Air Canada’s service that are being retrofitted by aerospace firms for carrying large containers in dmain cabin area.