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Supply Chain Challenges Could Boost Air Cargo Demand

  • Air Canada anticipates a quicker recovery in cargo volume in 2024, aided by the addition of two freighter aircraft.
  • Cargo revenue fell in the fourth quarter due to soft demand and lower yields, but the company expects cargo capacity to increase by 6% to 8% this year.
  • Management believes that strategic adjustments to the freighter plan will position Air Canada to capitalize on the recovery in the cargo market.
Air Cargo

By Eric Kulisch of FreightWaves

Air Canada expects the slow recovery in cargo volume that began in the fourth quarter to quicken in 2024, aided by the addition of two more freighter aircraft, but doesn’t anticipate gains in pricing power, Mark Galardo, executive vice president for network planning and revenue management, said Friday.

The cargo division within Air Canada (TSX: AC) currently operates five converted and two factory-built Boeing 767-300 freighters. It is scheduled this year to receive two cargo jets converted from passenger configuration, but delivery of a third plane has been delayed until 2025 because of lingering supply chain and labor challenges faced by aerospace manufacturing companies, said Galardo on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call.

The company nonetheless expects cargo capacity to increase 6% to 8% this year with the addition of the two freighters and more passenger aircraft that also carry cargo. The converted freighters are retired Air Canada passenger jets that are being retrofitted by aftermarket aerospace firms for carrying large containers in the main cabin area.

Cargo revenue fell 15% year over year in the fourth quarter to US$181 million on soft demand and lower yields, Air Canada reported. The three-month period represented an improvement from prior months as the downturn in freight transportation that gripped the air logistics industry for nearly 18 months began to ease. Full-year cargo revenue fell 27% to $253.7 million.

At the end of 2023, Canada’s flag carrier operated four more 767 freighters than at the end of 2022. Freighters were reintroduced at the company two years ago. Increased freighter operations to Central and South America and to Europe partially offset the year-over-year decline. Air Canada also enhanced its interline cooperation with Emirates SkyCargo, which allows customers to book interline cargo shipments through the Emirates SkyCargo flights, including between the Americas and Southeast Asia and India, through key European hubs. 

“We had a bit of a slower start in January, but as we look into February and beyond we’re starting to see volumes pick up and yields also pick up. And our 2024 assumption on cargo is more volume-driven than yield-driven. So we’re starting to see some positive indicators,” Galardo told analysts. “We’ve taken all the necessary measures to position ourselves to take advantage of the recovery. This includes strategically adjusting our freighter plan so that we can keep focusing on proven overall results for the long term and on maximizing cargo network value for our entire fleet.”

Air Canada in late September canceled an order with Boeing for two 777-200 production freighters because of the reversal in airfreight demand following the pandemic-fueled boom for air transport that lasted until early 2022. It then ordered 18 787-10 Dreamliners, including two that were swapped for the 777 freighters. Management, at the time, reiterated its commitment to operating freighters, saying that it needed to take a more measured approach to fleet expenditures and keep more cash available for other purposes.

Air Canada expects another leap in cargo business when the 787-10s begin entering the fleet in late 2025. But ongoing safety and manufacturing problems at Boeing could upset the delivery schedule. Production flaws have previously prevented customers from receiving Dreamliners on time.

“As we eventually receive the larger 787-10s, taking advantage of global cargo flows through our hubs will become an important lever for further diversifying revenue streams,” said Galardo. 

Air Canada performed well on cargo against its peers during the fourth quarter. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines saw cargo revenue slide 24% during the period, and Korean Air said its cargo sales fell nearly 29%. The percentage change in revenue at Air Canada was on par with the 14.8% decline at United Airlines. On a total dollar basis, Air Canada cargo revenue was less than that of the other carriers. The three major U.S. airlines are much larger than Air Canada but also do not have a dedicated cargo fleet. Delta was the closest to Air Canada at $188 million in revenue.

Overall, Air Canada generated $3.9 billion in revenue, up 11% from the prior year, during the final three months of 2023. But earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $386.4 million came in below expectations. On an adjusted basis, the company lost $32.6 million versus a loss of $162 million the year before. Higher wages, maintenance costs and flying volumes pushed expenses up 8%. Inflation is expected to increase costs another 4.5% to 5% in 2024, offset in part by productivity gains.

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Via Zerohedge.com 

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