Lufthansa Joins the Freighter Conversion Bandwagon
Lufthansa is the latest carrier to convert passenger aircraft to dedicated freighters, hoping to capitalize on the boom in air cargo when belly-hold space is at a premium.
The carrier is converting to Airbus A321s to freighters, and they are expected to enter service early next year. The freighters, with a payload capacity of 28 tons and a range of 2,175 miles, will be operated by CityLine, based in Frankfurt and will fly on European routes. Lufthansa said it the conversion process includes cutting in new cargo doors in order to carry containers on the main deck.
The carrier forecasts e-commerce to fuel 20 percent annual growth in cargo demand for at least the next five years. “With the converted A321s, we are meeting our customers’ growing demand for same-day solutions and further strengthening our dense network of global connections as well as our product offering,” Dorothea von Boxberg, CEO of Lufthansa Cargo, said in a statement.
Lufthansa is in good company. Both Air Canada and WestJet recently announced plans to add freighters to their fleets, but unlike Lufthansa, the two Canadian carriers did not previously operate dedicated freighters. In the U.S., regional carrier Mesa Air Group added its first Boeing 737s — freighters for DHL — and Sun Country is operating a fleet of 737Fs for Amazon.
Air France CEO Anne Rigail recently told Airline Weekly that cargo routes played a crucial role for the carrier during the pandemic, not only providing much-needed revenue but also keeping crews current and employed. The importance of cargo, she said, will likely last for several years. Similarly, Qatar Airways’ Mark Drusch, senior vice president for revenue management, alliances, and strategy, said cargo will have an increasingly important part in network planning as the carrier climbs out of the pandemic.
The latest data from IATA bolster these anecdotes. In May, cargo demand was up almost 10 percent from May of 2019. In April, demand was more than 11 percent higher than April 2019. But cargo capacity fell 10 percent from pre-pandemic levels, mainly because international passenger frequencies remain depressed, and belly-hold capacity therefore is down significantly.
There is reason for even more optimism, IATA said. Business confidence is higher now than it was even at the beginning of the year, as manufacturing output and exports are rising worldwide. Global trade rose by half a percentage point in April.
Meanwhile, air cargo’s main competitor, maritime cargo, is constrained by bottlenecks at ports in Asia, Europe, and North America. The Suez Canal blockage earlier this year has been resolved, but its effects are still rippling through the sector. And the premium for air cargo is falling. Before the pandemic, air cargo was on average 12 times more costly than maritime. Now, it’s only six times as costly, giving airlines hope to further eat into surface cargo’s market share.
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