Etihad Shifts Fifth Boeing Jet to Cargo Duty With Demand Surging

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways will temporarily convert a fifth Boeing Co. 777-300ER jetliner to cargo duty, responding to a sustained rise in demand for dedicated air freight.

The Gulf carrier, which operates 19 Boeing 777s, said that it was already seeing a surge before the Ever Given container ship got stuck in the Suez canal. As of Monday, the vessel has been floated, though it will take weeks for traffic to recover after the obstruction is cleared.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stoked demand for cargo-only jets, because with air travel stunted there’s been a shortage of capacity for goods carried in the hulls of passenger airliners. The Suez logjam has only added to a pressure driven mainly by a boom in online shopping that’s led airlines to convert planes for cargo duty.

“Demand for air freight will continue to be strong for the remainder of the year and into 2022,” said Alan White, Dubai-based chief growth officer at National Air Cargo, part of Florida-based National Air Cargo Holdings Inc. “We will be looking to add additional aircraft to our fleet.”

The company is seeking Boeing 747s, White said - another large aircraft that, along with the 777, that is favored for freight.

Last year, 155 passenger aircraft had seats removed in order to carry cargo in the cabin, according to Cirium, which tracks the airline industry. As of December, about two-thirds of those were still being used for that purpose.

An added 70 jets were permanently converted for cargo use, with more than 90 expected this year.

Suez Impact

While it is still too early to see the direct impact of the Suez situation on Etihad’s air-freight operation, customers “are now revising their uplift strategies to factor in this new development,” the state-owned airline said. The carrier said it’s carrying more goods by air that traditionally moved by sea.

Another Gulf carrier, Qatar Airways, said over the weekend that it had been fielding queries from shippers as a precautionary measure.

Air-cargo specialist Longtail Aviation International Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Martin Amick said in an email on Sunday that “every flight we have out of China is full.”

The Ever Given ran aground in one of of the world’s most important trade paths almost a week ago. It wasn’t immediately clear how soon the waterway would be open to traffic, or how long it will take to clear the logjam of more than 450 ships stuck.

A lack of shipping containers and some port congestion has also helped to push more of the supply chain to air, said White, of National Air Cargo.

“We are moving a lot more of automotive related cargo as a result, particularly on trans-Pacific routes between Asia and the U.S.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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