The air cargo division of Emirates has temporarily augmented its fleet with two older Boeing 747 jumbo jet freighters to meet expected demand while it waits for manufacturers to fill orders for new aircraft, the Dubai-based airline said Monday.

The 747-400s are being wet leased — a rental bundled with crews that fly the aircraft — and are currently being deployed to Chicago three times weekly and to Hong Kong nine times weekly. Emirates did not identify who is providing the transportation service on its behalf, but a source with direct knowledge of the company’s operations said Michigan-based Kalitta Air is operating the 747s to Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Aerotranscargo is the contractor for Hong Kong.

Aerotranscargo, headquartered in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, has six 747-400s in its fleet, according to Flightradar24. The company is incorporated in Moldova as Aerotranscargo FZE, which holds its air operating certificate. The flight tracking site shows Aerotranscargo aircraft shuttling back-and-forth between Dubai and Hong Kong in recent days. 

Kalitta Air operates 25 Boeing 747-400 freighters, as well as four 777s. A factory-built 747-400 has a maximum payload of 249,000 pounds.

Emirates SkyCargo last utilized outsourced 747 freighters more than five years ago. Those planes were operated by TNT Airways, now part of ASL Airlines Belgium. 

The airline plans to double its cargo capacity over the next decade and add more than 20 destinations to its freighter network despite the slump in airfreight, which has seen volumes decline more than 5% from a year ago and freight rates tumble 40%. But several long-range forecasts project the air cargo market to grow at a compound annual rate of about 4%, with the express segment powered by e-commerce growing at closer to 5% per year.

Emirates, the fourth-largest air cargo carrier by volume, operates 11 Boeing 777 cargo jets and has 15 new and used aircraft in the pipeline. In November, it committed to buy five 777 freighters from Boeing, with deliveries expected in 2024 and 2025. The airline last summer also announced plans to repurpose 10 777-300 passenger jets by sending them to an airframe maintenance facility for conversion into dedicated freighters. The retrofits are expected to roll out over the next five years, but the exact timing is uncertain because Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is still working to finish the licensing process.

“While the current market volatility may cause others to hesitate, Emirates SkyCargo is pushing full steam ahead with our plans. The medium to long term projections for global air cargo show an upward trajectory of between 3% to 5%. Combine that with Dubai’s strategy to double its foreign trade where multi-modal logistics will play a big role, and the economic activity happening in markets around the Gulf, West Asia, and Africa, and the opportunity for Emirates SkyCargo is clear,” said Nabil Sultan, divisional senior vice president of Emirates SkyCargo. 

The fleet expansion will still not be sufficient to meet growth projections, he added. Etihad Engineering, part of the Etihad Aviation Group and also based in the United Arab Emirates, has an agreement with IAI to convert 777-300ER passenger planes into cargo aircraft and will handle the Emirates job. Sultan suggested Emirates is considering additional passenger-to-freighter conversions to support its strategic plans.

Emirates SkyCargo also manages all the cargo carried on the airline’s massive widebody passenger network, which will also provide more cargo capacity as the airline begins to receive A350 long-haul jetliners from Airbus in the second half of 2024 followed by the arrival of Boeing’s next-generation 777-9. Emirates has 115 777-9s and 50 A350s on order. 

Emirates currently flies 252 large passenger aircraft, including about 90 A380 super jumbo jets, and plans to increase the fleet to more than 300 total aircraft within a decade.

“The new aircraft mean we can expand our freighter network and amplify the connectivity with the main Emirates network,” Sultan explained. “The new fleet mix also gives us more flexibility to serve our different customers even better.”

Emirates operates two modern air cargo terminals at its hub in Dubai. 

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