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Silk Way West, Alaska Airlines sign Boeing freighter deals

Silk Way West Airlines operates Boeing 747-8s (pictured), as well as older 747-400 freighters. It is buying two modern 777-8 freighters for the end of the decade to replace 747-400s. (Photo: Shutterstock/Giannis Papanikos)

Silk Way West Airlines, a growing cargo operator based in Azerbaijan, and Alaska Airlines on Thursday signed contracts with Boeing for two freighters apiece — but that is where the similarities ended. 

Silk Way West said it will take two 777-8s, the largest plane available from Boeing (NYSE: BA) and one so modern it isn’t even being produced yet, while Alaska Airlines will use secondhand 737-800s passenger aircraft and turn them into freighters.

Boeing said it expects to deliver the 777-8s in 2029 and 2030. The Central Asian carrier has an option for two additional aircraft. 

The 777-8 is still in the testing and certification phase, and the first one won’t enter service until late 2027.

The 777-8, with a maximum payload of 130 tons, is slightly larger than the legacy 777 freighter that will be phased out in five years. The planes are expensive but with advanced GE engines and a composite wing design offer 30% greater fuel efficiency, reduced carbon emissions and 25% lower operating costs per ton compared to a 747-400. The twin-engine 777-8 has nearly identical payload and range capabilities as the four-engine 747-400.

Silk Way West Airlines serves 40 destinations around the world, including scheduled service to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and Cincinnati. It has a growing hub in Baku, Azerbaijan, that serves as a transit point for much traffic between Europe and Asia.

The 10-year-old company boasts a fleet of 12 Boeing 747-400 and 747-8 freighters. In April 2021 it ordered five Boeing 777 freighters, and in June it placed an order with Airbus for its all-new A350 freighter, which is going head-to-head with the 777-8.

Stan Deal, head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and Zaur Akhundov, president and CEO of Silk Way Group, sign a contract for 777-8 freighters in Everett, Washington. (Photo: Boeing)

In a statement, Silk Way Group President Zaur Akhundov referred to the company’s fleet renewal plans, suggesting the 777-8s will replace aging 747-400s. 

Boeing this week issued an updated version of its global cargo forecast, which projects sustained growth in cargo volumes and the global freighter fleet to increase by 60% over 20 years. Emirates also ordered five 777s, a sign the world’s largest cargo airline has studied the market and is confident about future growth prospects.  

The 777-8 has enjoyed a strong start with 45 firm orders from five customers, including Silk Way West.

Alaska Airlines goes conversion route

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) provided details on how it will implement a previously announced plan to repurpose two 737-800 passenger jets in its fleet into cargo jets. The company said in March it would increase its freighter fleet to five aircraft with two converted 737-800s but didn’t disclose who would perform the modifications. 

On Thursday, Alaska Airlines said the planes will be sent to Boeing’s conversion program through a sale leaseback transaction with BBAM Aircraft Leasing & Management.

Boeing will outsource the work of adding a large cargo door, a ruggedized interior and cargo-handling system to Cooperativa Autogestionaria de Servicios Aeroindustriales (COOPESA), an airframe maintenance and repair specialist based in Costa Rica and new Boeing production partner. The planes will be completed in 2023 and early 2024.

Conversions are the only way to go for airlines that want a standard freighter because there is no factory-built version of the 737-800.

Alaska Airlines’ cargo unit operates three Boeing 737-700 converted freighters. The 737-800s provide 40% more payload space than the 737-700s, almost giving the company the benefit of an extra plane. The newer planes can carry nearly 50,000 pounds of freight and mail.

“We look forward to getting these 737-800s into service to support Alaska’s supply chain and connect cargo to over 100 cities we serve across North America,” said Adam Drouhard, managing director for Alaska Air Cargo.

Alaska’s freighter fleet provides service to 20 communities across Alaska, many of which do not have access to paved roads, and move seafood and other commodities to points throughout the U.S.

The sale leaseback maneuver allows Alaska to raise capital then rent the units back from the lessor to get the benefit of using them. 

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]