Why now is not a good time to operate all cargo airplanes

It's becoming more difficult for all cargo airplanes -or freighters -- to make money.  Photo: Your blogger.

It’s becoming more difficult for all cargo airplanes -or freighters — to make money. Photo: Your blogger.

Airlines are having a difficult time filling space on their all-cargo jets, according to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

What’s the problem?

There a couple of things, according to reporter Matt O’Sullivan. One is that the goods, such as electronics, that we love to buy are no longer manufactured in just handful of places. Instead, there are now manufacturing centers across China and Southeast Asia. If airlines want to carry the goods on freighters, they have to send their planes to cities they never would have considered a decade ago. That can work, but it’s expensive to do.

”Before, we could just sit here in Hong Kong and the trucks just came over the border from the Pearl River Delta – that was the factory of the world. It is still the factory of the world but there are now other factories of the world,” Cathay Pacific cargo director James Woodrow told the newspaper. That can mean sending freighters to Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The other problem? There’s an imbalance in supply and demand. All-cargo jets aren’t the only types of planes that can transport goods. Any widebody airplane can haul cargo between continents, as I noted last year in a story on how airlines transport fresh produce from L.A. to Europe and Asia. 

O’Sullivan notes that Middle Eastern and Asian carriers have been adding to their widebody passenger fleets. And while those airlines are mostly in the passenger business, cargo helps them eek out a little extra profit.

“The cheapest way to carry cargo is in the belly of passenger jets whose objective is to get their valuable human cargo to their destinations,” O’Sullivan writes. “Freight in the belly of a passenger plane is icing on the cake for an airline, often making the difference between it making money on a flight or not.”

These market changes have led Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines to park some of their planes, according to the story. “Singapore Airlines has four 747-400 jumbos parked at Victorville,” O’Sullivan writes.

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  • Mark

    I always thought it was a bit of a coup that you’d see a cargo plane come in while plane spotting. It wasn’t with regularity you’d see them unless you were at a larger airport at certain times of the day. I remember asking my father when he came home each day how things went at work (at United – LAXFF) back when frieghters were still coming through. Always interesting things being shipped back in the day…days long gone sadly.

  • Brian Sumers

    Mark — Yes, indeed. We do see a fair number of freighters at LAX today, but I think they’re gone from many airports. I confess to not knowing much about the cargo business before I took this job. But what airlines have to do to make sure the planes do not tip over while on the ground is pretty impressive. Who knew?

  • Charlie Victor

    Most interesting things I’ve seen on the cargo ramps at LAX: Exotic (sometimes not available to buy in the US) cars, horses and other livestock, jet engines, and satellites/rockets.