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Cargolux to replace aging 747 freighters with next-gen Boeing 777-8

Boeing also wins job from Saltchuk Aviation to convert 767s for cargo

Cargolux operates 30 Boeing 747 freighters. It plans to modernize its fleet with the new Boeing 777-8. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

(UPDATED: 7:35 p.m. EST)

Luxembourg-based Cargolux has tentatively selected Boeing’s next-generation 777-8 freighter over the new Airbus A350 to replace its large fleet of 747-400 jumbo cargo jets, the companies announced Thursday at the Farnborough International Airshow near London.

Boeing also said it landed an order from Saltchuk Aviation, the parent company of Aloha Air Cargo, Northern Air Cargo and StratAir, to convert three more used 767-300 passenger jets into main-deck freighters.

Cargolux is the largest operator of Boeing 747 freighters in Europe with a combined fleet of 30 747-400s and 747-8s. 

The news release about the deal didn’t specify how many aircraft Cargolux intends to buy or when units will be delivered. A full modernization presumably would involve 16 aircraft. The carrier operates 16 747-400s, an older model than the 747-8, according to flight tracking service FlightRadar24

The cargo airline said the 777-8 is its “preferred solution” for fleet replenishment, code for signing a nonbinding letter of intent expected to be finalized in the near future with a definitive agreement. It plans to retire the -400s between 2026 and 2031, but could push back the timetable if necessary, said spokesman Moa Sigurdardottir. The -8 freighters will remain in service until the 2040s. Eventually, Cargolux is likely to replace them with the 777-8 because Boeing is shutting down the 747 production line at the end of this year.

Cargolux is the fifth major airline to commit to Boeing’s replacement for the legacy 777 freighter, which is scheduled to end production in late 2027 to comply with new U.S. and international rules for reducing emissions and noise. Boeing has booked more than 50 orders since introducing the 777-8 in January, but the first editions won’t be available until mid-2027. 

Qatar Airways is the biggest customer, with an order for 34 aircraft (plus 16 options), followed by Lufthansa Cargo (seven), Ethiopian (five) and All Nippon Airways (two). Ethiopian recently finalized its preliminary commitment from March.

Airbus has not landed any contracts at Farnborough for the A350, its answer to the 777-8, or for any freighter conversions. The European aircraft manufacturer has 33 orders and preliminary agreements for the new freighter. Silk Way West Airlines, which also operates an all-Boeing 747 fleet (14 aircraft), last month opted for two A350s.

The 777-8 features nearly identical payload and range capabilities as the 747-400 but lacks its nose-loading feature that enables loading of vehicles or outsize freight. The twin-engine 777-8 offers 30% better fuel efficiency and emission reduction, as well as 25% better operating cost per metric ton than the aging, four-engine 747, according to Boeing. 

Boeing’s commercial market outlook, released over the weekend, projects an 80% increase in the global freighter fleet through 2041, including about 940 new widebody freighters such as the 777-8 and A350. 

Cargolux’s relationship with Boeing goes back nearly 50 years. It received its first Douglas DC-8 freighter in 1973 before graduating to jets with delivery of its first 747-200 freighter in 1977.

Although aircraft orders were far lower than previous Farnborough events, Boeing gained momentum with its freighter business. Besides the Cargolux deal, Boeing also solidified an order from ANA for two 777-8s. It also received orders from BBAM Aircraft Leasing & Management and Georgian Airlines for nine and three 737-800 cargo conversions, respectively, plus the Saltchuk 767 retrofits.

Boeing also concluded transactions with Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) and Qatar Airways for 100 and 25 737 MAX passenger jets, respectively.

767 conversion contract

The Saltchuk Aviation deal includes rights for an additional production slot. 

Saltchuk Aviation’s subsidiaries provide cargo service to Hawaii and Alaska, as well as destinations throughout North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. Saltchuk Resources also owns Tropical Shipping, an ocean line serving the Caribbean and Bahamas; Tote, a domestic shipping line serving Alaska and Puerto Rico; and several logistics companies.

Saltchuk Aviation placed a firm order for four 767-300s in early 2021. The first reconfigured medium widebody from the original deal was delivered to the carrier earlier this month, Boeing said. 

“We continue to see long-term air cargo trends that support fleet growth in the markets served by our three air cargo brands and are excited to expand our partnership with Boeing,” said Saltchuk Aviation President and CEO Betsy Seaton. “Converting these 767-300ER will bring highly-reliable capacity to our network, and backed by Boeing’s OEM expertise, we expect these freighters to operate in our fleet for the next 15-20 years.”

Saltchuk Aviation currently leases four Boeing 767-300s from Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG). It owns the plane delivered by Boeing and each plane in the initial order and will directly acquire the 767s for the second tranche sent to Boeing facilities for conversion, spokesperson April Spurlock said in an email. The combined fleet also includes 10 Boeing 737-300 and 737-400 converted freighters and one 737-800. 

Aloha Air Cargo and Northern Air Cargo are Hawaii and Alaska’s largest scheduled all-cargo airlines. Northern also flies to destinations throughout North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. StratAir is a Miami-based air freight company providing scheduled and charter air cargo operations throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America, as well as ground handling and warehouse operations in Miami.

The three carriers transport 380 million pounds of freight per year. 

Boeing didn’t not provide a timeline for redelivering the next three aircraft to Salchuk Aviation, but 767 conversion providers are jammed with work and have waiting lists of 18 months or more. 

Converting a medium widebody passenger aircraft is an extensive engineering process that lasts about four months and involves gutting the interior, cutting in a wide cargo door, strengthening the floor and wing box to support heavy containers and installing a cargo handling system.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]