Maersk discloses mechanical issues disrupted trans-Pacific air cargo service

Ocean shipping and logistics giant Maersk acknowledged this week that persistent mechanical problems prevented its cargo airline from operating two new Boeing freighter aircraft for several weeks on a new route between South Korea and South Carolina.

Business consequences from the grounded aircraft have been limited because the global economic slowdown has decreased interest in air transport, but some customers have experienced delays.

Maersk’s repurposed private airline made its North American debut in late October with the first of three newly built 767-300 freighters purchased from Boeing flying twice weekly from Seoul to Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. Maersk has outsourced flight operations to Miami-based Amerijet. The other two aircraft joined the new route in mid-December but were recently inactive for several weeks. 

Aircraft tracking site Flightradar24 shows one of the 767 cargo jets was on the ground in Seoul from Feb. 10 until March 2. The other has been sitting since Jan. 4. 

“During our routine flight operation to and from Incheon International Airport, we have experienced repeated technical problems with our brand-new aircraft. In cooperation with our OEM partners and in agreement with our maintenance [and] safety experts, we decided to temporarily ground the aircraft in question,” Maersk said in an advisory distributed to customers and shared with FreightWaves.

The company apologized “for the inconvenience caused by the temporary disruption” of flight operations.

“At A.P. Moller-Maersk, safety and security of our operation has the highest priority to prevent any human injury or loss of life and to avoid damage to the environment and to property — especially to your freight,” the notice said. “We fully understand your frustrations with the flight delays and cancellations which happened last week. We will work hard to meet our own demand to offer you efficient and reliable air transportation for your time-sensitive and high-value cargo.”

Maersk informed customers that “all necessary repair and maintenance work has been completed” to required standards and that the aircraft “have received the clearance to return to service.” One of the 767s is back in rotation, but the other is still parked, according to flight tracking sites.

The low demand for all-cargo flights has limited the number of customers impacted by the grounded aircraft.

Maersk has also been cautious about expanding its new trans-Pacific operation until bookings pick up again.

“We’ve taken advantage of the soft market to do engine maintenance. That’s why some of these routes haven’t started up,” said Maersk spokesman Tom Boyd.

An outsider with intimate knowledge of Amerijet’s activities said volumes on the South Korea flights have been very light. “The plane takes about 120,000 pounds, but they’re taking 45,000 on a regular basis.”

Amerijet officials declined to comment on the situation.

A separate source not affiliated with either airline said Maersk plans to add a connection to Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, via Seoul. A couple of trial flights have already occurred, according to FlightRadar24 data. 

Tough transport environment

Maersk operated Star Air for many years as an outsourced provider of airlift for UPS and other express couriers in Europe. Using huge ocean profits, it branched out and expanded its fleet last year to provide direct air cargo service to its own customers as part of a strategic move to become an integrated logistics provider. 

The downturn is being felt across the all-cargo sector. Air shipment traffic slid 8% last year from record highs in 2021 and was 1.6% less than in 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association. It predicted air cargo volumes will fall further this year to 5.6% below 2019 levels. 

There is less need to rush shipments by air because retail inventory levels are still high, e-commerce spending is well below the pandemic peak and ocean supply chains are no longer congested. Global air cargo volume fell 4% in February from a year ago, market intelligence firm Xeneta reported. And shippers don’t need to rely on freighter aircraft to the same degree as passenger airlines return to normal schedules and offer more cargo capacity for sale.

Contract carriers like Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), ABX Air and Cargojet (TSX: CJT) have all reported cutbacks in flight hours, even though much of their business comes from supporting large express carriers because of lower package volumes. Cargojet said it is suspending plans to convert four of eight large passenger aircraft into freighters until the market improves.

Another ocean carrier, NYK Line, this week said it would sell off its cargo airline because it was too costly to expand. 

There are green shoots of export growth in Asia and air logistics professionals are anticipating volumes to improve in the coming months.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Editor: Eric Kulisch