Lufthansa’s cargo division will launch a medium-haul network on March 15 utilizing its first Airbus A321 converted freighter in response to strong demand for quick e-commerce transport. The inaugural flight is scheduled to carry goods from the Frankfurt, Germany, hub to Dublin, with the network building up in the coming months to cover seven destinations, the carrier said Wednesday.
Sister company Lufthansa CityLine, an intra-European passenger carrier that flies standard A319 aircraft, as well as smaller Embraer and Bombardier regional jets, will operate the narrowbody aircraft for Lufthansa Cargo.
The Lufthansa organization acquired two used A321 passenger planes last year and sent them to Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and ST Engineering, to be retrofitted with a main-deck cargo configuration. The first plane was delivered earlier this month and the second is expected to enter service in late summer, according to Lufthansa Cargo.
The A321 freighters will also provide service to Istanbul; Tel Aviv, Israel; Malta; Tunis, Tunisia; and Manchester, England, with Cairo being added to the network starting March 29. Frequency will gradually increase to two to three times per week from Frankfurt as the operation is fine-tuned and the second aircraft joins the fleet.
The new service complements Lufthansa Cargo’s global route structure, which is supported by a fleet of 11 Boeing 777 widebody freighters. It is the first time that Lufthansa Cargo will manage standard-size jets, although it does process cargo that moves on Lufthansa passenger aircraft of all sizes.
In addition to giving Lufthansa Cargo additional cargo capacity, the A321 cargo jets enable fast connections well-suited for express delivery environments built on regular shuttles. Lufthansa officials said they eventually intend to provide same-day service capability.
“With the added medium-haul freighters, we are opening up a whole new strategic business segment,” said Ashwin Bhat, chief commercial officer for Lufthansa Cargo, in a news release. “Available capacity in the global airfreight market continues to be scarce and, at the same time, end consumers expect short delivery times for their ordered goods. … We can close this gap and continue to reliably and quickly provide our customers with the capacity they need.”
Lufthansa has previously cited forecasts that cross-border e-commerce volumes in Europe will grow about 20% per year for the next five years. Globally, e-commerce is on track to hit $6.2 trillion in sales by the end of the year on a growth trajectory of 16.5% since 2018, according to research firm eMarketer.
Lufthansa’s A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion has a 28-ton payload. During conversion the floor was reinforced, and a roller system and wide cargo door were installed to allow containers in the upper deck where passengers previously sat. The A321 has room for 14 pallets or containers in the main deck and 10 smaller containers in the lower deck. The ability to put containers in the belly sets the A321 apart from its main competitor, the Boeing 737-800.
The first aircraft is going through final technical updates required for the German Federal Aviation Authority so it can be added to Lufthansa’s operating certificate. CityLine will provide the crew and maintain the aircraft behind the scenes, with Lufthansa Cargo marketing the capacity under its own flight number.
CityLine’s entrance into the freighter business is part of a trend among some passenger airlines. In recent months SmartLynx in Latvia, Air Canada (TSX: AC), Canada’s WestJet, Sun Country (NASDAQ: SNCY) and Mesa Airlines (NASDAQ: MESA) have all launched freighter divisions, or announced plans to do so, in an effort to diversify revenue and ride the air cargo wave being pushed by e-commerce transactions. Brazilian carrier Azul recently began operating a small Embraer 195 freighter partially converted for full-time cabin loading of light cargo.