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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FedEx’s LAX facility: Some facts you may not know

Fedex airplanes are lined up at the carrier's Indianapolis hub.

FedEx airplanes are lined up at the carrier’s Indianapolis hub. Photo courtesy of FedEx.

I visited FedEx’s vast warehouse at Los Angeles International Airport this week, a facility that, unfortunately, is off limits to photographs and video.

But I learned some interesting stuff:

  • Fedex flies almost exclusively widebody planes to LAX, using a mixture of MD-10s, MD-11s and A-300s.
  • The MD-10s are an unusual aircraft. They were initially called DC-10s, and they flew as passenger aircraft for decades. But after high-tech cockpit upgrades – they can now be flown by two pilots instead of three – they adopted a new name. The same pilots at FedEx fly the MD-10 and the MD-11, as the cockpits are similar.
  • Fedex flies between about 16 departures and 16 arrivals daily from LAX, though that  number fluctuates based on factors such as day of the week and time of the year.
  • About half of departures leave during the day, while the other half leave at night.
  • Common destinations from LAX are Memphis, Oakland, Honolulu, Fort Worth, Texas and Indianapolis. There are no international flights from the airport, though planes do fly on to Pacific destinations from Honolulu.
  • At its LAX facility, FedEx can accommodate 14 airplanes at one time.
  • Fedex is adamant about not losing your package. About 15 to 20 minutes before each flight, three different employees inspect every inch of the 800,000 square foot facility. Their goal: To make sure every last package is on board.
  • Your package is scanned two to five times as it moves through the airport facility. You won’t see those scans on Fedex.com, but it allows employees internally to know exactly what is happening to your package.
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