Wednesday, July 21, 2021

As the Covid Pandemic Continues So Passenger to Freight Aircraft Conversions Boom

Disease Has Altered the Face of Cargo Carriage
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – One of the unforeseen effects of the Covid 19 pandemic has been the sea change in aircraft use brought about by the mothballing of vast swathes of the passenger aircraft fleet. This paucity of flights inevitably put pressure on to deal with the vast amounts of cargo, normally carried in the belly holds, and now with nowhere to go.

This month the STAT Trade times published a detailed article, using data drawn from IBA’s InsightIQ, to illustrate the vast growth in plane conversions from passenger to freighter aircraft (P2F). Prior to the crisis InsightIQ recorded around 78,000 freighter flights per month. By December 2020 we saw this up to 138,000 as the cargo fleet, including rapidly undertaken conversions, took up some of the slack.

One imagines that the priorities for airlines with regard to their fleets shifted radically as the new trade volumes continued to change. There was storage of the most recently acquired aircraft whilst some which had seemed destined for a long life in the passenger market, suddenly became a better option to convert.

The first move was of course to bring all the freighters that were already parked up in store, back into service. As vast quantities of PPE of all varieties plus vaccines became priority cargo for just about every point on the globe, so the pressure increased. There was inevitably a surge in P2F conversions with a reported leap in newly converted narrow bodied craft around the globe from 61 to 625 since last May.

Now with the B747 production freighter programme closed by Boeing, wide body options have become scarcer and reportedly P2F specialists are declaring full order books for the next 18 months. This leaves the question, what next?

And this of course is the gamble of Covid. The nature of business has indisputably changed with enormous growth in ecommerce. How much of this new business, if any, will fall away if the disease recedes. The $64 million question is will we ever return to ‘normal’. If restrictions on passenger air travel, and remember there are also environmental pressures to contend with, persist, then those carriers which have hurried to switch to a more cargo based economy for their companies may have made a wise choice.

Volume shortages inevitably mean higher freight rates, just look at the current ocean shipping container market. Certainly by the number of suitable aircraft conversion facilities springing up around the world it looks as if some of the smart money says the new face of air freight will be with us for a while yet.