Freighters: an unattainable dream for SAS and Finnair?

The two Nordic airlines, SAS and Finnair, do not operate freighters. Finnair used to have some, but they are a thing of the past. All cargo shipments are therefore transported in the belly compartments of the respective passenger fleets. Yet, freighters would be desirable, according to the air freight managers of both airlines. This ‘dream’ might be realized through ‘togetherness’, in other words:  close cooperation with partners.

Gabriela Hiitola became Senior VP, Finnair Cargo in January 2923, succeeding Fredrik Wildtgrube in this position – photo: CFG/hs

Gabriela Hiitola, the new Head of Cargo at Finnair Cargo, mentioned that operating freighters is desirable but currently highly unrealistic. She stated this in a panel at the Nordic Air Cargo Symposium held on 23APR24, in Stockholm. Getting into the freighter business would only be feasible if done in close cooperation with peers, she said. Her keyword for this was: togetherness.

Her SAS colleague, Markus Ek, sounded the same note. He has been at the helm of the cargo division of the traditional Nordic airline since August 2023. For his carrier in particular, the chances of potential freighter operations are slightly better compared to its geographical neighbor, Finnair. This is because the airline’s imminent switch from the Star Alliance to the Sky Team club, which will take place at the end of August, could make freighter capacity available for SAS, at least on intercontinental routes with strong demand or in the form of triangular flights. The options are there since Air France and KLM operate own freighters. Whether they will be considered, remains to be seen. Finnair does not have comparable opportunities. Its closest European one world partner, British Airways, does not have any cargo aircraft in its fleet after it phased out three B747-8Fs a decade ago.

Geographical disadvantages

At the moment, Finnair is plagued by completely different problems. Due to the sanctions against Russia following its war on Ukraine, Russian airspace is closed to Western airlines. This means that Finnair’s aircraft need 3 hours longer on routes to and from the Far East, compared to the direct link via Siberia. The routing increases costs, leads to higher kerosene consumption, and makes the entire product more expensive.

Sustainability is more than just a fuel issue, it includes social aspects like diversity and Inclusion, stated Markus Ek from SAS Cargo at the Nordic Air Cargo Symposium – photo: credit SAS

Leisure demand dictates networks

Markus Ek from SAS drew attention to another challenge affecting the cargo divisions of both Nordic airlines. Since the end of the pandemic, the route network has been heavily concentrated on leisure destinations due to tourist demand. However, these are generally locations that are not very attractive for freight transportation. The same applies to Finnair, where only 10% of the cargo transported originates from the domestic market, but 90% is transit. By concentrating its network on tourist demand, the airline is also becoming less attractive for the air freight market.

Waiting for IATA’s ONE Record data sharing standard

Both cargo executives agreed that there is no alternative to digital transformation. The documentation of all processes in air freight is still far too complex and is often based on different systems, which doesn’t make communication easier. The two managers agreed that the implementation of the ONE Record platform is urgently needed to streamline data flow and massively reduce complexity. “There is no alternative to digital transformation, otherwise we would die, since customers might find other ways how to work,” warned Mrs. Hiitola.

High ecological awareness

Sustainability is another issue ranked high on Finnair and SAS Cargo’s priority list. “Reducing greenhouse gases, increasing the proportion of sustainable aviation fuel and renewing the fleet, are right at the top of our sustainability agenda. In a broader sense, this also includes diversity and inclusion, which we see as part of social sustainability,” argued Markus Ek.

At Finnair, “SAF currently accounts for 0.2% of our flights. In two years, it should be 2%. And in ten years, it will be 34.5%,” stated Mrs. Hiitola. She added to this that not only governments should drive this issue forward, but also private investors should get more involved. And the trend is proving her right. More and more shippers are asking their service partners to provide proof of a green transport chain when tendering for contracts. This is positive and welcome pressure from the industry, Hiitola and Ek agreed.



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