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Although many shippers claim the high cost of fuel is making them review their reliance on air transport, Boeing still thinks the market for air freight is going to be buoyant over the next 20 years.
In its latest market forecast, the US aircraft manufacturer estimates the global market for dedicated freighters will double by 2027 to 3,890. That would represent 11% of the total worldwide civil aircraft fleet. The nature of that fleet would also change as bigger aircraft claimed a higher proportion of the market, with the largest freighters taking a 35% share, up from 26% today. The basis for that projection would be an annualized 5.8% increase in freight per tonne/kilometres.
However, Boeing admits that increased fuel prices are having--and will continue to have--an impact on the world's aircraft fleet in general and on the freighter sector in particular. It recognizes that airlines are looking to control their costs by buying newer, more fuel efficient, aircraft. Older planes are being sold off. However, Boeing believes those second-hand aircraft will be converted into freighters. In all, it suggests, 2,500 aircraft will be converted from passenger configuration into cargo carriers whilst a further 850 new freighters will be bought.
Boeing asserts that there is a "pent-up" demand for freighters but that the new aircraft will generally be of larger types, bringing new capabilities to the market.
That optimistic scenario is based on the assumption that future demand for air freight will remain as strong as it has been over the past couple of decades. In particular, Boeing sees air freight fulfilling a demand for freight transport in areas of the world that have inadequate land transport infrastructure.
Whilst that is not an unreasonable assumption, it might be a dangerous one. Extrapolating forward from past growth rates assumes that air freight will play the same role in logistics that it has done in the past. However, that may not be the case if there are changes in the geography of trade or, as has happened recently, to a key cost driver such as fuel.
Boeing is proud of its market forecasts, which, the company points out, have a history of accurately predicting future volumes. Nonetheless, in the present economic climate, such a strong assertion about air freight growth is quite brave.
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