AirBridgeCargo Airlines will take six months to realize the full economic benefits of operating its first two Boeing 747-8 freighters on core routes between China, its Moscow hub and Europe, according to executive president Tatyana Arslanova — an admission that it will take time to fill the new capacity on a trade lane that remains soft. ABC achieved a load factor of 71 percent across its scheduled network last year.
Group revenues of parent company Volga-Dnepr increased 10 percent to $1.74 billion in the first 10 months of 2011 on a like-for-like basis. Uplift was 14-percent higher at 372,500 tonnes, with ABC contributing 104,960 tonnes, and the group increase in freight-tonne kilometer terms was 8 percent.
“We’re swimming against the stream,” Arslanova said during a Frankfurt ceremony to mark the delivery of ABC’s second stretch freighter. But a 75-percent fall in profit to $59.3 million, although partly a result of Volga-Dnepr Group’s investment strategy, also reflects the battle for yield.
Arslanova said the new aircraft, which take the carrier’s total fleet to 12 747 freighters, brought a double-digit improvement in unit costs against its 747-400s. The operating economies they offered meant they would be deployed primarily on the Beijing and Shanghai routes.
However, the Moscow-Chicago route via Amsterdam, launched in April 2011 and currently supporting three flights per week, could be a candidate for an upgrade when a third 747-8 joins the fleet in September.
ABC’s first trans-Atlantic service was well balanced eastbound and westbound, commented Wolfgang Meier, executive vice president of sales. Trans-polar or trans-Pacific flights were “always on our agenda, but it’s a quantum leap for us,” Meier added. “We’re not sure if it will be in 2012 or 2013.”
There is some uncertainty as to the exact extra payload the 747-8F can carry. Analysts have claimed the aircraft ended up eight to 10 tonnes heavier than first expected, limiting its payload and range, though Boeing 747 program manager Elizabeth Lund has said improved performance from a redesigned wing more than compensates for this.
The plane is 5.6 meters longer than its predecessor, giving four additional main-deck and three more lower-hold pallets; this translates to a 16-percent higher revenue cargo volume. In weight terms, Boeing promises a maximum 140-tonne payload. A senior ABC executive at the Frankfurt event said the carrier had already flown 135 tonnes and claimed that ongoing adjustments by the manufacturer could theoretically improve this to 145 tonnes in the coming months.
Arslanova said that increasing utilization was the greater challenge facing ABC, since the aircraft usually spent four hours on the ground at Russian airports. A further limitation was the company’s strategic decision not to mix crews between 747-400s and 747-8s, she added.
More capacity is on the way, however. ABC will phase out its last two Boeing 747-200 Classics this year, but two more 747-8s are scheduled for delivery in 2013, completing its firm order for five aircraft, and it has options for five more. ABC projects that its tonnage will increase by 15 percent in each of the next three years, but Meier said it was not “artificially throwing capacity at the market.”
The company is trying to take advantage of China’s “Go West” policy and introduced thrice-weekly service to Chengdu, previously served only as a charter destination, in March. The city boasts a thriving high-tech industry and Zhengzhou, seen as a major production hub for the future, has also been added. Chongqing joins the schedule from this summer, taking ABC’s mainland China destinations to six from three a year ago.
Meanwhile, the carrier launched a weekly service between Beijing and Hannover, Germany, at the beginning of April. Kuehne + Nagel is the anchor customer and automotive parts comprise the main freight transported, as Volkswagen operates a production plant in Hannover.
Meier described the move as “part of our strategy to diversify and strengthen to other [European] industrial centers, and we can’t rule out others.” But he insisted this did not represent a weakening of ABC’s presence at Frankfurt, where it is the second biggest cargo carrier behind Lufthansa with 14 frequencies per week. He also said ABC was unaffected by Frankfurt’s recently imposed night-flight restrictions, since it had not been allowed to operate there at night anyway.
An advantage ABC claims over rival operators on the Asia-Europe lane is that it is serving Russian manufacturing centers. It has added new routes to Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk, with Khabarovsk in Russia’s far east following soon.
Last year, the Volga-Dnepr Group also acquired Atran-Aviatrans Cargo Airlines, based at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Atran operates three AN-12 freighters. Volga-Dnepr President Alexei Isaikin said the new subsidiary could provide a regional and feeder cargo service — something the group had previously hoped to develop in-house — and would replace the Antonovs with Boeing 737s.
Sparse details emerged at the Frankfurt briefing on how Volga-Dnepr will exploit the 49-percent stake it has taken in Air Cargo Germany. The main reasoning appears to be that the deal gives loss-making Air Cargo Germany fresh liquidity, while unlocking trans-Atlantic traffic rights for ABC.
Meier said ABC and Air Cargo Germany synchronized their schedules last week. The carriers currently operated on an interline basis and could firm up their cooperation to include code-sharing in the future, he indicated.
CEO Michael Bock said Air Cargo Germany’s four 747-400s could usefully supplement the ABC network. The carrier flies three times per week from Frankfurt Hahn to Shanghai over Almaty, a more direct route to China than ABC can offer since it omits Moscow. Air Cargo Germany also serves Johannesburg and Chicago twice a week and launched a Hahn-Mexico City service in April.