Watch Now

Could the mass groundings of Boeing’s newest 737 impact air freight?

In the wake of Sunday’s tragic Ethiopian Airlines crash near Addis Ababa and the October 2018 crash of the same model Lion Air jet in Indonesia, several countries and airlines around the world have temporarily grounded their fleets of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. As of publication time, the following nations – Australia, China, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Kingdom – and the following airlines – Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Cayman Airways, Comair (South Africa) Eastar Jet, Ethiopian Airlines and Royal Air Maroc – currently have either grounded their aircraft until further notice or suspended operation of the aircraft within their airspace. Other operators have expressed confidence in their fleets, but await more definitive information from Boeing or government aviation safety regulators.  

Safety concerns over new aircraft have developed before, shortly after the first Boeing 787s were delivered. Electrical system issues involving lithium-ion batteries in equipment on the aircraft developed on several 787 aircraft in short succession, and the global fleet was grounded for three months early in 2013 until a technical solution was developed, tested and approved by regulators.

Were the world’s fleet of 737 MAX 8 aircraft to indeed be grounded for some period of time until a fix to whatever issue is found, how much impact would that have on air cargo?   

For the 737 MAX 8, the question of cargo impact can be answered in different ways. First, this is a very new Boeing aircraft, delivered to its first carrier less than two years ago. So it exists in limited quantities in the fleets of most airlines that have ordered them, though many more remain to be delivered. According to Flightradar24, Southwest Airlines has the most 737 MAX 8 aircraft of any U.S. carrier, at 34 out of a fleet of 754, or less than five percent of its fleet.  American Airlines has 26 of 945 non-regional jet aircraft, again less than five percent. Of the Canadian carriers, Air Canada has 25 of 356 aircraft (seven percent) and WestJet has 12 of 181 aircraft (6.6 percent). There are 96 of the aircraft spread across multiple carriers in China, and the percentages range from two to eight percent of each carrier’s fleet.

In contrast, Norwegian Airlines (18 aircraft), flyDubai (12 aircraft) and TUI (17 aircraft) each have 737 MAX 8 aircraft as more than 10 percent of their fleets, thus a far higher degree of vulnerability to a grounding.  While they each service some unique city-pairs, none of these airlines are considered major air cargo airlines. To manage their operations with fewer aircraft, all of these airlines, especially the latter group, would take a combination of actions – for example, temporarily rescheduling to reduce flight frequencies, deferring new route expansions and increasing utilization of remaining aircraft in their fleets to cover gaps in schedule. There would likely be a greater impact on passenger operations than on cargo operations, but most of the larger airlines should be able to substantially backfill for fewer aircraft and weather the difficulty.

The second aspect considers how full these affected aircraft are with cargo that would need to find new capacity. According to Boeing, the lower deck compartment of the 737 MAX 8 that air cargo shares with baggage is 1,540 cubic feet, or 43.6 cubic meters. Potential cargo payloads on narrow-body aircraft like the 737 MAX 8 can vary greatly from flight to flight, but typically depend on how full the passenger load is, the quantity and volume of baggage, flight distance, local and en route weather, runway length and fuel load, among other factors.  

Generally speaking, an aircraft like this should be able to accommodate between 2,500 and 5,000 pounds of freight and mail (in addition to passenger baggage), and sometimes more for dense freight like seafood. Typically, narrow-body aircraft like the 737-800 carry cargo loads consisting primarily of mail, express parcels and smaller freight and e-commerce business.  Cargo is loaded in the belly alongside baggage, must fit through the same small door (48 inches wide by 35 inches high, according to one U.S. carrier’s specifications), and must often be manually loaded at many airlines (unless the carrier has purchased a lower deck conveyor system for aircraft containers, in which case heavier pieces can be loaded). So individual piece size and weight, which can be 330 pounds or 150 kilograms per piece, are critical constraints.  

As a result, few narrow-body aircraft are fully “maxed out” with cargo because there are limited volumes in many cargo markets that fit and can regularly fill such aircraft. On routes or markets where there are also wide-body passenger or freighter aircraft, shippers often prefer them because they accommodate larger shipments and the cargo needs less physical handling. A review of U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows U.S. carriers average only a few hundred pounds of cargo per departure on their 737s, though several markets with high volumes of seafood, fruit, vegetables or flowers can often average loads of several thousand pounds or more per flight.  

FreightWaves’ overall assessment though, is that any cargo volumes displaced should be able to find space on other non-737 MAX flights, in most cases. A potential grounding of 737 MAX 8 is not foreseen to have any capacity squeeze or pricing impact on the vast majority of the world’s air freight markets, with the narrow exception of a few small carrier niche markets outside of North America.