Freighter fleet development

The number of airplanes in the worldwide freighter fleet will increase by more than half during the next 20 years as demand for air cargo services more than doubles.

The challenging market environment of the past three years have left traffic levels relatively flat, resulting in persistent overcapacity and weak yields. Cargo capacity on passenger flights has been expanding as airlines deploy new widebody jetliners, such as the 777-300ER and 787, that have large lower-hold cargo capacities, even with a full load of passenger luggage.

Dedicated freighter services nonetheless offer significant advantages, including more predictable and reliable volumes and schedules, greater control over timing and routing, and a variety of services for outsize cargo, hazardous materials, and other types of cargo that cannot be accommodated in passenger airplanes. In addition, range restrictions on fully loaded passenger flights and the limited number of passenger frequencies serving high-demand cargo markets make freighters essential where both long-range and frequent service are required. For example, the Asia-to-North America market requires about 70 freighter flights. It would take about 150 passenger flights to provide service equivalent to 10 of those freighter flights.

The demand for freighter capacity in long-haul markets is not confined to the Asia-North America market. Freighters are essential to all the east-west markets. Freighters carry about 72% of all air cargo carried between Europe and Asia, as well as 43% of all cargo carried between Europe and North America.

Freighters are therefore projected to carry more than half of the world's air cargo for the next 20 years, even as lower-hold cargo capacity expands faster than freighter capacity. It should be noted, however, that the faster growth and economical pricing of passenger lower-hold capacity makes the freighter share of the cargo market volatile when air cargo traffic growth is constrained.

With air cargo traffic more than doubling by 2033, the world freighter fleet will grow by more than half, from the current 1,690 airplanes to 2,730 airplanes by the end of the forecast period. The imperative for efficiency favors large production freighters and will drive their share of the fleet to grow from 21% to 30% during the forecast period. Growing demand for regional express services in fast-developing economies will drive the standard-body share of the fleet to increase from 35% today to 40% in 20 years. All new deliveries of standard-body freighters will be converted passenger airplanes.

Of the 2,170 projected freighter deliveries, 1,130 will replace retiring airplanes, with the remainder expanding the fleet to meet projected traffic growth. More than 60% of deliveries will be freighter conversions, nearly 85% of which will be standard-body passenger airplanes. A projected 840 new production freighters, valued at $240 billion, will be delivered, of which more than 70% will be in the large-freighter category.

More than 40% of all freighter deliveries during the 20-year forecast period will be to carriers in the Asia Pacific region. Asia Pacific-based carriers will continue to receive a high proportion of large production freighters to serve their long-haul, intercontinental routes. North America will receive 30% of freighter deliveries over the next 20 years. Most of those deliveries will be to express carriers. Historically, up to three-quarters of medium widebodies, production and conversion, have supported express operations, in which relatively low airplane utilization makes converted freighters economically attractive. Standard-bodies will continue to support the needs of emerging regions, niche segments, and express operations.