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Asian carriers bulk up with Boeing freighters

By Hpanchal on September 27, 2011

With its order for eight Boeing 777 freighters, Cathay Pacific looks set to defend its perch at the top of the international air cargo carrier hierarchy. Officials have now signaled to the market that they view the current softness as a temporary phenomenon.

The freighters, which are scheduled for delivery between 2013 and 2016, will change the look of Cathay’s cargo operation. The B777 order marks a departure from the airline’s exclusive focus on B747 cargo aircraft, but this is not to say it is moving away from the 747. Cathay has ordered 10 747-8 freighters, six of which are slated for delivery before the end of this year, with the remainder due to come on stream in 2012. What, if any, affect Cargolux’s refusal to accept delivery of its B747 freighters will have on Cathay’s planned deliveries is not yet known.

The 777 simply offers the airline a chance to enter new markets. The 105-tonne aircraft has the payload, fuel efficiency and range to replace 747-400Fs on long-haul routes. Cathay Cargo head Nick Rhodes has said that the new order will be used to replace older freighters (notably 747-400BCFs) and to expand capacity. The B777 can also be fielded in markets where a 747 freighter would not work well — notably, in sectors within the Asia-Pacific arena.

Rhodes has made it plain that the freighters under consideration for the carrier’s recent order had to offer capabilities suited to the Asian market. He remarked that a regional freighter would be used “for all the usual suspects in Asia — Dhaka, Hanoi, Saigon, Penang, Jakarta, Singapore, Kansai — and numerous ports in India and China, mostly point to point to and from Hong Kong.”

Singapore Airlines, which has concentrated purely on 747 freighters to serve long-haul, intercontinental sectors, has not strayed from the 747, but is focusing more on intra-Asian flows. The carrier has added Taipei, Bangkok, Kolkata and Osaka to its freighter network in response to growing intra-regional trade. This spring, Singapore officials began all-cargo flights from the carrier’s home base over Bangkok to Shanghai and Tokyo, and Singapore executives are now looking to add more regional freighter flights if the market warrants it, a spokesman stated.

Asiana Cargo is also looking to boost its footprint in the regional market. Next year, it plans to run daily Seoul-Shanghai freighter flights with 747 equipment, replace the B767 freighter on the Manila route with a 747 cargo aircraft, start 747F flights to Chongqing, and step up the frequency on the route from Seoul to Singapore and Bangkok. “We will upgrade our freighter schedule flying in this region,” declared Kee Chul, senior vice president of cargo sales.

The regional focus reflects a shift in traffic patterns. Statistics for the first four months of the year show that for the first time, the U.S. was not the top cargo market for Singapore Changi International Airport. Powered by 10-percent growth, China took over that mantle.

Operators report that their intra-regional business has kept its momentum, a trend in stark contrast to the slowdown in the long-haul business to Europe and North America. Amid pessimism about these markets in the months ahead, the Asian sector looks ever brighter. The recently published Asia Pacific Transport and Logistics 2011 report from Transport Intelligence predicts double-digit growth in the region. Not surprisingly, the authors named China as the engine for much of this growth, both in terms of flows to and from the country as well as the migration of low-cost production to emerging Asian economies like Cambodia and Laos.

Governments in the region are investing more in logistics infrastructure and are bent on dismantling trade barriers through political efforts, the study found. China, Japan and Korea are working on a joint study for a trilateral free-trade agreement launched last year, which they intend to complete before the end of this year, 12 months ahead of their original timetable. In a joint declaration issued after a summit in May, the leaders from the nations expressed the shared view “that the three countries should strengthen cooperation to further enhance vitality and dynamism of the region and lead the vigorous growth of Asia.”

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