Importance of freighters in the air cargo industry

Airlines that operate freighters generate 90 percent of total air cargo industry revenues.

Air cargo accounts for less than one percent of world trade tonnage, yet 35 percent of world trade value is carried by air. A high value industry, air cargo is critical for serving markets that demand speed and reliability for the transport of goods. The highest value commodities, including computing equipment, machinery and electrical equipment, account for the highest share of airborne trade tonnage versus their share of containership tonnage. Over the next 15 years as the world GDP grows and the world population demands higher value goods, the value per ton of total traded goods across the world is forecast to rise. As the average value per ton of traded goods rises, a larger percentage of trade will become addressable by air cargo. Air cargo will remain a preferred solution for transporting higher value goods that are time sensitive and economically perishable.

Freighters are particularly well suited for transporting high-value goods because they provide highly controlled transport, direct routing, reliability, and unique capacity considerations (volume, weight, hazmat, and dimensional). The distinct advantages of freighter aircraft allow operators to offer a higher value of service. Airlines operating freighters generate 90 percent of air cargo industry revenues, a percentage that has remained relatively constant over time. Additionally, more than half of air cargo traffic is carried on freighters. The introduction of new widebody passenger airplanes with larger lowerhold capacity (sometimes referred to as “passenger belly” capacity) has not significantly reduced the freighter share over time. While lower-hold capacity increased 27 percent from 2010 to 2015, the number of large freighters in service increased by 8 percent over this same period. The share of cargo carried on freighters remains high in markets across the world, especially in the world’s two largest trade routes, Asia–North America and Asia-Europe, where more than 70 percent of total air cargo traffic is carried by freighter airplanes.

Express carriers continue to operate substantial freighter fleets, flying 40 percent of the widebody freighters and generating 40 percent of air cargo industry revenues in 2015. These operators use freighters as a link in their door-to-door proprietary transportation network—a network that is tailored to the needs of their customers by using unique schedules and specialized airplanes. The business model of express carriers cannot be replicated using only lower-hold capacity.

The majority of the remaining large freighter capacity is deployed for air freight. Air freight demand is highly concentrated—85 percent of scheduled large freighter flights operate out of the top 50 cargo airports, including airports across North America, Asia, and Europe. Over the past five years, only 30 percent of the lower-hold capacity of new widebody aircraft has served primary cargo airport routes. This underscores the need for freighters to serve these markets and airports. 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.

Freighters will continue to carry more than half of the world’s air cargo for the next 20 years, as the majority of players in the industry continue to rely on and augment their cargo operations by flying freighters.

Freighters are critical to compete in air cargo markets

Express and combination carriers consistently generate the majority of world air cargo revenue

Freighters play a key role in major east-west markets

Freighters carry more than half of air cargo traffic