National Air Cargo seeks bulky business with 747, Beluga freighters


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May 28, 2023

National Air Cargo seeks bulky business with 747, Beluga freighters

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MIAMI — National Air Cargo, an unusual freight forwarding company that doubles as an airline, is opening business avenues for oversize cargo with the addition of its first nose-loading freighters and discussions with Airbus about renting the ultralarge Beluga transporter that can swallow tanks, yachts, satellites and electric transformers.

Orlando, Florida-based subsidiary National Airlines next month will began utilizing two factory-built Boeing 747-400 cargo jets, increasing the carrier's fleet to 10 aircraft – including two for passenger charter. The newly purchased assets have a nose cone that flips open for ramp-loading of long, bulky items such as helicopters and trucks that can't fit through a traditional side cargo door. The six other 747-400s in National's fleet do not have nose-loading capability.

Meanwhile, the logistics side of the company is exploring options for chartering the Beluga mega-freighter that Airbus recently made available to companies with special shipping requirements, said Alan White, chief growth officer for National Air Cargo, during an air cargo forum here in November.

Airbus last year launched a new cargo airline that will eventually consist of five Beluga super transporters previously used internally to ferry aircraft sections between manufacturing plants. The aerospace giant is replacing the whale-shaped Beluga STs with an even larger Beluga version to support aircraft production. Its new for-hire service for freight forwarders and charter brokers is currently offering two Beluga ST cargo jets. A third one will be available in 2023, and the remaining mega-freighters will permanently join the fleet in 2024, officials said in October.

"From our freight forwarding element we’re very accustomed to using the An-124" with its front-loading ramp, White said, referring to the Soviet-designed super-jumbo jets that can carry more weight than the Beluga but have smaller cross-sections. "We’re talking to them [Airbus Beluga Transport] to see if there's mutual benefit in partnering because their volume capability is so much greater."

The 747 remains one of the most popular freighters because of its size and versatility. Existing aircraft are likely to be in high demand for decades with Boeing delivering its final 747-8 early this year and permanently shutting the production line.

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The two 747-400s recently acquired by National Airlines are less than 15 years old. The aircraft are scheduled to be painted in the company's livery this month and enter service in February. They will enable the company to expand its scope into the oil-and-gas industry, which regularly ships long pipes and other noncontainerized equipment.

"We’re very [eager] to capitalize on that opportunity. We see that as being a major target for us for the coming year and beyond," White said.

National Airlines has been busy since the pandemic moving humanitarian aid, COVID medical supplies, e-commerce shipments, fruits and vegetables, automotive parts and finished automobiles, and U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Many logistics companies form virtual airlines by signing long-term contracts with cargo airlines for dedicated transport under their own brand, but National Air Cargo took the unusual step in 2006 of buying a small Michigan carrier called Murray Air and operating its own fleet in a bid to gain U.S. government contracts. At the time, Murray Air flew old DC-8 freighters and supported the automotive industry.

The airline allows the company to provide a packaged suite of services for internal customers that need airlift and also make money from charter operations. As a freight forwarder, National Air Cargo also arranges ocean and road transportation.

"We can fly point to point for any customers that want that door-to-door element with pickup, delivery customs, one invoice, track-and-trace," not unlike a closed-loop FedEx or UPS network, said White. "We call ourselves a boutique integrator."

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No other logistics providers offer a similar model, unless one includes large ocean shipping lines with logistics holdings that have started airlines in the past couple of years.

CMA CGM, which owns Ceva Logistics, in 2021 launched a cargo airline in 2021 with four widebody freighters and has since added two more aircraft that operate on intercontinental routes. It initially outsourced the flying but is now hiring its own pilots and obtaining its own air operators certificate in France. Shipping giant Maersk, which also has a major logistics division, is investing in a major expansion of its legacy cargo airline. Instead of flying just under contract with express delivery companies, it is directly selling space to its own customers and other freight forwarders.

Mediterranean Shipping Co. in December launched service between Europe, Asia and North America with a single Boeing 777 and plans to have four freighters in its in-house fleet by the end of the year. But the transportation conglomerate, which also provides warehousing and intermodal ground service, doesn't fly the planes itself. Atlas Air is the underlying operator for MSC Air Cargo.

More FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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