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Cargo demand has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic as more people go online to shop for everything from essential goods to tech gadgets. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways is looking to significantly boost its freighter fleet as cargo demand continues to boom.

Martin Drew, Etihad’s Senior Vice President of Sales & Cargo, said several of the carrier’s Boeing 777-300 aircraft were “good candidates” for conversion to cargo. “We’re also evaluating the Airbus A350 freighter, which will be launched in 2025, as well as the Boeing 777x freighter as well”

“There’s been limited options in terms of freighters. Boeing dominated that space - it’s good that Airbus does have the A330 freighter, but the 350 freighter is going to be a very good aircraft as well,” said Drew on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow.

“It’s encouraging to see that there are more conversion options coming through the pipeline as well because that’s key,” he added.

Cargo demand has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic as more people go online to shop for everything from essential goods to tech gadgets. For Etihad and its industry peers, the aviation segment has helped offset some of the dip in passenger revenues.

Global demand for cargo, measured in cargo tonne-kilometers, was up 7.7 per cent compared to August 2019, said IATA (International Air Transport Association) in a recent report.

“This pandemic has really demonstrated the value of freighters and there is a severe shortage if you look at the projected growth of air cargo going forward,” said Drew.

Demand will stay

Supply constraints started as passenger planes, which carried about half of the world’s cargo, were grounded overnight last year. With surging e-commerce demand and sea freight operators also facing a supply shortage, current levels of air cargo demand might be here to stay.

“There’s a lot of passenger aircraft that have been reactivating, but during this pandemic, you’ve had a number of airlines that have reduced in size, and sadly a number of airlines have gone out of business,” said Drew.

The Etihad executive added that even if passenger demand were to return to May 2019 levels, there will not be enough capacity to meet the demand.

“When you look at the incredible growth of e-commerce, ongoing constraints on the sea freight side of the business, we’re going to continue to see an imbalance in terms of demand versus supply from a capacity standpoint,” said Drew.

This is going to mean that the air cargo market is going to be very strong, he added.

Qatar World Cup

The FIFA World Cup in Qatar could potentially be a huge opportunity for cargo operators looking to transport goods into the Gulf state.

“There’s strong cargo demand because of all the material that’s needed to build the stadiums and everything else,” said Drew. “When you see this huge influx of people coming in for the World Cup, then without doubt, in terms of perishables and everything else, you’re going to see a big increase in demand for those movements.”

Drew said that the sporting event will be a big positive for Etihad’s passenger business as well. “People will likely base themselves in Abu Dhabi or Dubai and then commute across,” said Drew.