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National Airlines expands 747 freighter fleet by 150%

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 an Arizona airpark 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. It’s not clear why the company waited this long to activate its freighters considering the high demand and readiness by freight forwarders to charter full planeloads, especially leading up to the traditional peak shipping season now underway. 

National officials could not be reached by publication time.

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. Technicians must also look for unforeseen complications such as corrosion and pests that can crop up when systems are not continually being operated. Aircraft owners prefer to place aircraft in dry climates to limit water damage to structures and electrical equipment.

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