Wednesday, February 7, 2018

UPS Order For 14 Boeing 747 Freighters Might Once Have Been For Airbus A380

United Parcel Service (UPS) just ordered fourteen more Boeing 747 freighter aircraft, announcing the deal on February 1, the 30th anniversary of the founding of UPS Airlines. The new 747s, pegged at a list price of $5.65 billion, join fourteen 747s ordered by UPS in 2016. The company cites continued growth in its air freight business and positive effects of recent US tax reform as the main drivers for the big buy. Airbus, which once offered a since-cancelled A380 freighter variant, could only watch.

UPS and Boeing are responding to the whopping 9% rise in freight demand in 2017. Meanwhile, air freight capacity (“lift”) rose only 3%, according to the International Air Transport Association, which predicts another 4.5% growth in 2018. David Abney, UPS chairman and CEO of UPS, “UPS's International segment has produced four consecutive quarters of double-digit export shipment growth.”

With all this demand, much of it driven by insatiable consumerism for everything from food to phones, the heavy lift capability of the 747 freighters is key. UPS, for example, typically flies its 747-800s on high-traffic routes to Asian cities. The big jets connect in Alaska to UPS' primary hub in Louisville and to other hubs in Philadelphia; Rockford, Illinois and Ontario, California.

UPS Airlines President Brendan Canavan, who also ordered four 767 freighters, said, “The new freighters will allow us to continue upsizing aircraft on routes and will create a cascading effect that will boost capacity on regional routes around the world.”

Boeing, of course, was pleased as punch. “UPS has clearly tapped into the power and efficiency the 747-8 Freighter brings to the market,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Kevin McAllister. The 28 747 freighters ordered by UPS, along with 747 freighters ordered by other carriers, will keep the 747 production line open until at least 2022.

Ironically, while only cargo keeps the 747 production line open, the superjumbo passengers prefer, the A380, was once supposed to be the queen of air freighters as well. Although Airbus has many cargo aircraft, including the fascinating new Airbus Beluga, the UPS order might once have been filled by the A380F.

It’s getting hard to find 747s in passenger service, although Korean Airline and Lufthansa are among a handful of airlines flying 747s. But with the nostalgia-inducing last flight of both Delta and United’s 747s in 2017, no American airlines operate the plane. Instead, the larger and much more modern Airbus A380 is clearly the superjumbo of passenger preference. More than 200 A380s currently fly in passenger service, and a new order from Emirates that will bring the build total to nearly 350 and keep the A380 production line open until at least 2028 was recently announced.

Of course, with the phase-out of 747s from passenger service in US flag carriers, one could say that US carriers are operating just as many A380s as 747s. That is, zero. Nonetheless, the Boeing will keep flying for many years to come and will be built until at least 2022, 53 years after its launch in 1969. The secret? Cargo.

An A380 freighter was designed. One was actually built and flown. It would have been a formidable competitor, with a 10,000km range and 150-ton capability.

UPS competitor FedEx was announced as the launch customer for the A380F freighter, with 20 A380Fs ordered. International Lease Finance and UPS were other announced customers. Deliveries were supposed to start in August 2008 but production delays pushed deliveries back to 2009 before another round of production issues set deliveries back “at least" another year. At that point, in 2006 (a year before the A380’s first commercial passenger flight) FedEx canceled the order, replacing it with smaller but available 777 freighters.

"We had six A380s due in 2009 - almost a million pounds of lift - and the uncertainty of the schedule caused by the delay affected our ability to fulfill our lift requirements," David Sutton, FedEx managing director aircraft development, acquisitions, and sales said at the time. "We lost confidence in Airbus's ability to deliver when it said it would, and there was the prospect of further delays."

In 2005, UPS had ordered 10 A380Fs with an option for another ten. But four months after FedEx canceled its order, UPS did the same in 2007, also cites the two-year delay, adding “it decided to cancel after it learned Airbus was diverting employees from the freighter program to work on its passenger plane program.” The UPS “freighter freeze” proved the end for the A380 freighter program, although the diverted resources helped in the rollout of the successful passenger version.

Ironically, in 2016 Boeing was ready to cancel the 747. What is thought the last passenger 747 rolled off the assembly line in July of 2017 for Korean Airlines. What is keeping the Boeing production line open is more than thirty 747 freighter orders, including the 28 from UPS and smaller orders from Qatar Airlines (itself an A380 passenger customer), Nippon Cargo, and AirBridge.

Although the A380 has become a success as a passenger plane, impressing airlines and customers alike, the end of the freighter program a decade ago means the A380 won’t have the same end-of-life insurance policy as the aging 747.

(Michael Goldstein - Forbes)

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