Data Reveals the Dominant Role of the 747 Freighter in 2020

 - February 15, 2021, 2:09 PM
Spire Aviation's data shows that the numbers of 747F aircraft in service were three times higher than those of the A380, A340 and passenger versions of the 747 in 2020. (Chart: Spire Aviation)

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


The Boeing 747’s long and distinguished service as a long-haul passenger airliner was one of several Covid-19 casualties in the air transport sector, with many nostalgically mourning the passing of the so-called Queen of the Skies. But Covid hasn’t been as cruel on the air cargo sector, prompting operators to boost capacity by enlisting more lift to haul goods around the world, including health supplies and, lately, vaccines too.

New data from Spire Aviation provides a vivid snapshot of the extent to which the 50-plus-year-old 747 has acted as a workhorse moving goods valued at around $6 trillion, representing one-third of world trade, according to IATA. The industry group calculates the number of Covid vaccines needed to treat the world’s 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747Fs.

Throughout 2020, Spire tapped global air traffic data from its own satellite constellation to track the operations of a quartet of four-engine freighters. From the end of March, when the pandemic’s grip took a firm hold, around three times as many 747s operated in freight service as did the Airbus A380 and A340 models. Across 12 months, around 300 Boeing 747 freighters served in active duty.

Spire flights
Spire Aviation data showed how the 747F outstripped other cargo airplanes in terms of flight hours during 2020. (Chart: Spire)

In the first quarter of 2020, there were more than 200 A380s, and the numbers of A340s and passenger 747s were in the lower half of the 100s. From April, operators withdrew a significant number of those types from service, but not the 747 freighters.

Looking at Spire’s flight hour data, the gulf grows even wider. The 747Fs actually increased their flight hours in the wake of Covid, with the global fleet climbing above 30,000 hours per month to nearly 40,000 in November. By contrast, all three other aircraft types saw a dramatic dip in activity levels from April.

Spire carriers
Asian cargo airlines appeared prominently among the top ten operators of the Boeing 747 Freighter in 2020. (Chart: Spire Aviation)

The Spire data also gives a breakdown of the top ten 747F operators. Both in terms of numbers of aircraft and flights, the list in descending order follows and gives a hint as to the extent to which activity in Asia appears to have been less severely affected than elsewhere: Atlas Air, UPS, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Kalitta Air, AirBridge Cargo, Asiana Airlines, Korean Air, and Silk Way West Airlines.

Spire Aviation is part of data and analytics company Spire Global, which aims to help businesses and governments make decisions by identifying, tracking, and predicting the movement of resources and weather systems from its own constellation of more than 110 satellites. The company produced an animation to show flight patterns for 747Fs around the world last year.