The crisis capacity crunch came as passenger flights plummeted and the ensuing scramble to transport pandemic payloads saw the deployment of hundreds of passenger planes as freighters, known as preighters, take off.
Pioneering Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly led this trend and was the first to convert an A380 for freight, taking out the majority of seats to provide more cargo capacity.
Despite the sector seeing the grounding of hundreds of passenger planes, earlier than had been initially forecast, which led to a reduction in the availability of cargo space in the bellies of these passenger aircraft, we’ve seen more planes undergo conversions to freighters.
The preighters prevalence looks set to continue throughout 2021 and beyond. Although the air cargo industry faces continuing challenges, IATA predicts an anticipated 25% rise in freight tonne-kilometres this year.
Boeing projects growth in the global freighter fleet with the number of cargo aircraft in service forecast to increase more than 60% over the next two decades, resulting in 3,260 operational aircraft by 2039. (1)
However the ongoing drastic downturn in travel means the loss of a lot of capacity in passenger aircraft and while freighter aircraft are still present and working hard, fleet growth takes time, so there will be a slower response to replacing some of the capacity lost from the passenger side of the industry.
Some of the 747s which have comparatively low hours on their airframes will undoubtedly become 747 converted freighters and will be flying as freighters just to try to backfill some of that loss in capacity from the passenger numbers.
Large Widebody Aircraft – Grounded or Retired
Before COVID-19, it was predicted airlines would start cutting flights from schedules, mothball larger aircraft, decline production options and look to utilise smaller, more efficient aircraft in the future for environmental and economical reasons. All of those decisions have been massively accelerated.