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National Airlines expands 747 freighter fleet by 150%

National Airlines is adding three Boeing 747s freighters to its fleet. (Photo: National Airlines)

(Updated Oct. 5, 2020, at 7:45 A.M. ET with details about removing aircraft from storage yard)

National Airlines, a small all-cargo operator headquartered in Florida, said Friday it will begin operating three more Boeing 747-400 freighters pulled from desert storage to meet growing demand by businesses for air transportation. 

Shippers will welcome any new options for moving their goods in today’s capacity-constrained environment, which has caused rates to triple from normal in some trade lanes. 

National acquired the three jumbo jets two years ago but parked them at Pinal Airpark in Arizona because the airfreight market was weak at the time. The first of the three 747-400s will join National’s fleet in the first few days of October and the second will be activated later this month. The third aircraft is expected to begin commercial service in November, National said.

The air cargo market is suffering from a 30% shortage of capacity, with two-thirds of passenger networks missing in action because of the coronavirus-caused destruction of travel demand. The shortage is worse in Asia and Europe. Belly capacity — the space below deck where cargo and baggage reside — is two-thirds less than last year. Airlines have added nearly 30% more freighter capacity — planes and frequencies — but it isn’t enough to significantly close the gap.

National Airlines said it postponed plans to bring the parked planes into service at the start of the year because of the coronavirus outbreak. The company didn’t activate its freighters sooner because initial demand was met by its existing fleet and that the process of refurbishing a plane from long-term storage takes a minimum of three months, it said in an email response to questions. Integrating new aircraft into operational specifications certificates issued by aviation regulators can also influence the readiness date.

Orlando-based National primarily offers air cargo and passenger charters for companies and government clients. The airline participated in Project Airbridge earlier this year, moving personal protective equipment and other medical supplies for the COVID-relief effort under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Its current fleet consists of two 747-400s and one Boeing 757-200 passenger jet, which it has used this year for cargo-only flights with extra boxes in the passenger cabin strapped to the seats. National said it also has added an Airbus A330-200 passenger aircraft to its fleet. 

National’s cargo planes fly daily between the U.S. and the Middle East, China and Hong Kong.

When planes have been inactive for a period of time, they must undergo a series of maintenance checks. The reactivation process can be quite extensive, depending on the length of time in storage. It takes about a month to prepare an aircraft for a heavy maintenance check, which can last another two months. Technicians must also look for unforeseen complications such as corrosion and pests that can crop up when systems are not continually being operated. The entire process can cost more than $15 million per aircraft, National Airlines told Freightwaves.

Aircraft owners prefer to place aircraft in dry climates to limit water damage to structures and electrical equipment.

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch. / Contact: [email protected] Twitter: @ericreports


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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]