Why it’s getting hard to imagine being a 747 cargo pilot in the year 2030

Few industries have followed the rise of information technology to such a huge degree that it has revitalized one of aviation’s most basic functions: the taking of expensive cargo.

In these cases, “trillions of dollars will be invested to make these airlines competitive, and then the other one will be dead in 15 years,” says Bill Scannell, president of systems integrator AAR, which helped fly the first GPS-enabled cargo jet commercially.

Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president for marketing and business development, thinks it will happen a little faster: He figures the merger of European carrier Air France and the U.S. parent of KLM would be a giant step toward those big investments.

The merger, which could be announced as early as this summer, would unite “Lufthansa and KLM, the three highest-margin airlines out of Europe,” he says. And, Tinseth continues, “you can do this on a worldwide basis with one system with one cockpit.”

Such consolidation is the catalyst for so much innovation in air cargo — all the way down to the K-necks with the dull spiny at one side and the bold red-and-white propeller whirring in the center — that it is easy to forget how utilitarian it has always been. Not only have planes once hauled all manner of cargo, like bananas, bell peppers and peanut butter, they also carried some of the world’s most intractable problems, including tuberculosis and influenza, which spread by air, or measles, that had a negative impact on children.

Changing times have not only changed air transportation, they have made it more expensive. “In 1970,” says AAR’s Scannell, “you could run 14 Q-wings in a three-year time span to cover 1.3 million pounds of airfreight. Today, for that you need three.” The end result: airfreight capacity in North America is hovering around 40 percent of what it was back in the 1980s, according to the Air Cargo Management Association.

To be sure, ground transit costs have also risen: the increase in airport usage for short-term uses — if airlines fly fewer tons of cargo, they generally fly less long-term cargo, too.

An experimental superplane made of commercial-grade wing sections put in service in December has more capacity than a single Boeing 747 cargo plane, but the 994-foot-long Gulfstream G650 will probably have only one, or maybe two, pilots: Airbus thinks that will satisfy the market. Airbus has not presented the craft to United or its other U.S. partners, but competition-ready cargo will account for about 10 percent of U.S. cargo traffic by 2030, while the airfreight market grows only at about 1.5 percent a year, according to IATA.

The Airbus prototype is popularly referred to as a “supersonic jet” and, notes Airbus Commercial Aircraft Chief Operating Officer Guillaume Faury, will only be able to carry about 200 tons, or about half a ton more than a Boeing 747. Its maximum cruise speed, of 765 knots (855 mph), is two to four times slower than that of the 747, too.

In a possible concession to lower demand, Airbus is offering the plane for lease at a discount of 10 percent to what most buyers would pay. Boeing has yet to reveal its pricing on the G650, but a company official said its package is expected to run “a bit higher” than the Airbus model.

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