Air cargo will grow 5.2 per cent annually between now and 2031, according to the latest estimated from aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
A forecast from Airbus, Boeing’s European rival, is marginally more conservative, suggesting that air cargo growth will be 4.9 per cent a year over the next 20 years.
Boeing says that air cargo traffic has been moderating after a high period in 2010. Air cargo contracted by 2.4 per cent in 2011.
However, it says expansion of emerging-market economies will, however, foster a growing need for fast, efficient transport of goods.
In its Current Market Outlook 2012-2031, Boeing also sees passenger traffic growing by five per cent a year.
Boeing points out that cargo capacity on passenger flights has been expanding, especially as greater numbers of highly cargo-capable airplanes, such as the 777-300ER, have entered the fleet.
Lower-hold cargo can generate extra profit for passenger airlines, taking advantage of dense passenger networks. But freighters, with larger payloads and routes and frequencies optimised for cargo, carry the majority of traffic – about 60 per cent.
Air cargo traffic growth, measured in revenue tonne-kilometres (RTK), is projected to average 5.2 per cent over the next 20 years.
Global economic growth and the need to replace aging airplanes is expected to create a requirement for 2,760 freighter deliveries over the same period.
About 1,820 of these will be passenger airplane conversions, according to Boeing. The remaining 940 aeroplanes, valued at $250 billion, will be new.
The freighter fleet will nearly double in size, from 1,740 airplanes in 2011 to 3,200 in 2031.
Boeing forecasts a requirement for 1,120 standard-body freighters, nearly all of which will be passenger conversions. The low capital cost of converted airplanes makes them attractive for the low-demand routes typically flown in standard-body operations.
Of the 710 medium wide-body freighters delivered during the forecast period, 260 will be new purpose-built freighters. This market segment is driven by express carriers, which value the balance between the lower cost per tonne achieved by larger airplanes and the schedule flexibility of smaller airplanes.
Although purchase prices for converted large freighters are attractive, the performance and reliability advantages of new, purpose-built freighters outweigh this consideration–particularly for intercontinental cargo operations, where larger payloads and extended ranges are crucial. Of the 930 large freighter deliveries, 680 will be new airplanes.
Airbus says there are now more than 1,600 freighter aircraft with a cargo hold of at least 10 tons and more than 200 airlines.
“Despite the economic crisis, competition from other modes and the resulting difficulties for the air cargo market, the total number of Freight Ton Kilometres (FTKs) in 2011 was 7 per cent above the pre-crisis high in 2007 and 23 per cent higher than the low in 2009.”
And Airbus reckons that for the period 2011-2031, worldwide air freight is expected to grow at 4.9 per cent per year. Over the forecast period, there will be a demand for nearly 1,800 converted aircraft and nearly 900 new aircraft.
In total Boeing is forecasting a long-term demand for 34,000 new aeroplanes, valued at $4.5 trillion. The Airbus forecast is for 28,000 new aircraft in the next 20 years.
Boeing says the new aeroplanes will replace older, less efficient aeroplanes. Some 23,240 aeroplanes (68 per cent of new deliveries) will be single-aisle, reflecting growth in emerging markets, such as China, and the continued expansion of low-cost carriers throughout the world.
The twin-aisle segment will also increase, from a 19 per cent share of today’s fleet to a 23 per cent share in 2031. The 7,950 new twin-aisle aeroplanes will allow airlines to continue expansion into more international markets, Boeing reckons.