Boosted by stronger results and new freighters, the revamped cargo arms of the large Chinese carriers have North America in their sights. Their transpacific expansion comes on the heels of new all-cargo flights to Europe inaugurated in recent months.
Air China Cargo, the joint venture involving Cathay Pacific, kicked off with B747-400F flights connecting Dalian with Frankfurt. The planes fly via Shanghai, which is the venture’s designated second hub.
Last month, the outfit received the second of four B747-400BCFs that Cathay contributes to the partnership. The newfound capacity will be used to beef up frequency to the East Coast or to open new U.S. destinations, said Cathay Pacific’s COO Titus Diu.
With the ten freighters in the fleet before June, the carrier was running 17 weekly frequencies to Europe, nine across the Pacific, and 16 flights to destinations in the Asia-Pacific region. In its home market, Air China has extended international freighter service to emerging points beyond the traditional three gateways of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
China Southern Airlines, which is poised to mount passenger flights to Vancouver this summer, launched all-cargo service to Amsterdam and Milan in the spring. In May, it signaled ambitions for further growth with an order for six B777 freighters, which are due to enter service starting in 2013.
The revamped China Cargo Airlines has not announced new freighter orders, but it stands to see a significant boost in its maindeck capacity. Liu Shaoyong, chairman of parent China Eastern Airlines, recently announced that its freighter fleet will grow from 21 to 30 aircraft by 2015.
The fleet mix of China’s largest freighter operator at the moment will require some streamlining down the road. It consists of six 747-400s, four 777s (with two more on order), six MD-11s, three A300-600s and two 757-200s. This mix reflects the blend of carriers that have been amalgamated into the new China Cargo Airlines.
China Cargo Airlines was born out of the merger of China Eastern with Shanghai Airlines (which had its own cargo joint venture with EVA Air) and the inclusion of Great Wall Airlines, the Shanghai-based venture in which Singapore Airlines is involved. Both EVA and SIA have taken smaller stakes in the new cargo carrier, which has yet to spell out its long-term strategy.
China’s big three international carriers are facing rising competition from Yangtze River Express and parent Hainan Airlines, which have moved aggressively to boost their cargo lineup. In March, Yangtze River Express management declared that its fleet of four 747-400 and nine 737-300 freighters would go up to 15 units by year’s end. The Shanghai-based, all-cargo carrier has not given any details about aircraft type and timetable, but according to some reports, Hainan Air has purchased six A330-200 freighters from leasing companies. This order is in addition to two A330Fs already leased, which have been placed with Hong Kong Airlines.
Like its bigger rivals, Yangtze River Express expanded on the Asia-Europe sector in the spring with the launch of twice-weekly B747-400F flights from Chongqing over Moscow to Luxembourg, returning via Shanghai.
The international expansion of the Chinese carriers, which had previously concentrated largely on beefing up their domestic networks and the consolidation process in the country, is fueled by strong results. The industry’s profits jumped threefold in 2010, with Chinese carriers reporting combined profits of CNY35.1 billion ($5.3 billion), as revenues climbed 37.2 percent.
Cargo traffic has been strong for them. Air China saw RTKs go up 13.4 percent in April, for a 4.1 percent rise in the first four months of the year. China Eastern reported an 18.8 percent increase in RTKs in April, bringing the growth rate for the first four months of 2011 to 11.6 percent. China Southern showed a 36.8 percent surge in April; growth in the first four months of 2011 totaled 29.4 percent.
Statistics from Seabury indicate that the gap between Chinese imports and exports has been shrinking. For the past year, Seabury figures show 2.27 million tonnes of airfreight exports and 1.76 million tonnes of imports. The difference in yields remains stark despite improvements in inbound rates. Faced with load factors around 70 percent in the aftermath of the lunar new year holiday on the outbound legs, Chinese carriers scrapped several transpacific freighter flights in the second half of February, despite good demand for westbound lift.
The year ahead will show less buoyant growth. Air China recently warned that its net profit in the current year would fall below the 2010 results, due to the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and competition from China’s rapidly growing high-speed railway system.