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By Yuanfei Zhao, Senior aviation analyst at Ascend by Cirium
The Chinese freighter fleet, including both narrowbody and widebody freighters, has grown significantly since the turn of the century, when there were only six commercial cargo aircraft in service in China. By contrast, at the end of 2022 there were more than 200 aircraft in operation.
The path by which China has grown its freighter fleet differs from the World’s other two developed markets in terms of fleet split. The widebody fleet in Europe was larger than their narrowbody fleet in January 2000 and that remains the case today.
On the US side, there has been a fundamental fleet change between narrowbody and widebody fleet, driven both by continued retirements of very old narrowbody types such as the DC-8/9 and 727, and continued increase of widebody types.
In China, as the cargo fleet started to grow initially widebodies were more predominant, but since 2012 the fleet of narrowbodies in service, initially Boeing 757s but latterly 737-800s, has grown significantly ahead of widebody freighters.
The three competing economies represent some of the world’s largest international trading markets, and China is presently both the world’s largest exporter and the largest trading (imports and exports) nation amongst the three. Yet, the largest trading nation has the smallest freighter fleet, in particular the widebody fleet. This raises the question of whether the country’s own international air cargo transportation capacity can meet its economy/trading scale. A substantial portion of the capacity gap has been filled by foreign cargo integrators as evidenced by Cirium’s tracked utilization data for both China inbound and outbound freighter flights, as shown in the below chart.
The implication here is that while the barrier to entry is higher in the widebody sector both financially and operationally, the long-term opportunity is also sound for the likes of cargo operators and freighter investors in the Chinese market.
In the intermediate widebody category for example, the current Boeing 767F will have to end production by 2028 as the engines do not meet new ICAO regulations for in-production types. This leaves the A330 P2F converted freighters well placed before any new 787 Freighters could be delivered, notwithstanding that Boeing have yet to launch development of such a variant so and entry into service will be highly uncertain.
In the large widebody category, almost 60% of new build widebody freighter demand is forecast to be in this category, according to the latest Cirium Fleet Forecast. The Airbus A350 and Boeing 777-8X freighters, which will enter service prior to 2030, are forecast to see strong demand, backed by the fact that 747-8F production has now ended and the production of 777-200LRF must also cease by 2028, just like the 767F.
Ascend’s fleet forecast indicates that China will have close to 340 widebody freighters by 2041, which is four times larger than the current fleet.
In comparison, the narrowbody fleet will increase by two and half times. For those who are financially and operationally capable, some long-term fleet planning of wide-body freighters can be undertaken in due course.