Cathay began dedicated freight operations in 1976 with a converted passenger 707 and 6 years later took on its first 747-200F and started joint venture freight services with Lufthansa between Hong Kong, Frankfurt and London. In 1988 the cargo division was separated as an independent airline and a year later an order was placed for a pair of new 747-400 Freighters. In the meantime the 747-200F fleet increased to four and by the end of 1992 the airline carried 349,339 tonnes a year.
The pair of new 747-467Fs were delivered a year apart in mid-94 and mid-95 and so were old enough to initally wear Hong Kong VR registrations. Alongside greater belly capacity in the new A340 passenger fleet these two units allowed freight carriage to increase to 531,321 tonnes in 1995. New services connected Hong Kong to Toronto, Los Angeles (both via Anchorage), New York and Chicago.
The new century was a major growth period for the Cargo airline, which by June 2006 operated 14 747Fs. The series 200F was still the largest component with 7 aircraft, but the 747-400F fleet had tripled to 6 units and the airline was beginning to incorporate 747-400BCF (Boeing Converted Freighters) into service as well. The airline had committed to 6 BCFs and had options on another 6. It also held a 60% share in Air Hong Kong, after selling 40% to DHL.
Cathay Pacific Cargo was still bullish about growth at this point carrying more than 1 million tonnes of cargo in 2005 for the first time. New services had begun to Shanghai, Dallas and Atlanta that year also. This confidence went as far as the airline's biggest ever commitment for new freighters in June 2006 when it placed orders for 6 new 747-400ERFs to be used on the North American network. Nonetheless the airline was also having to contend with increased fuel costs and to tackle that introduced a new polished silver fuselage livery.
These 'Silver Bullet' 747s weighed about 200kg less than if painted and were estimated to save around HK$1.5 million a year in fuel. B-HIH, a 747-267BSF delivered in 1984 was the first in the fleet to wear the silver scheme. At the same time lighter cargo and baggage containers were introduced.
Cargo destinations continued to expand alongside frequency. Routes to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Manchester gained 11 extra weekly frequencies between them in 2007 with Hanoi and Dhaka joining the routes in 2008, followed by Miami and Houston in 2009. By this time the first new 747-400ERFs were entering the fleet, replacing the series 200Fs.
Unfortunately the cargo market took a major downturn following the Global Financial Crisis. A drop off in business and high fuel prices made the 747-400BCF fleet rather uneconomic and of the 13 conversions almost all were disposed of by 2013. Many of these went to associate companies like Air Hong Kong, Dragonair Cargo or Air China Cargo with only a single frame remaining in Cathay service.
Nonetheless in 2010 Cathay still managed to become the globe's largest international air cargo carrier. It was eagerly awaiting new 747-8Fs to upgrade its fleet and the opening of its new Cargo terminal in Hong Kong and despite the downturn remained focused on its cargo operation. In a future part we'll look at the past 8 years and the introduction of the 747-8Fs.
Cathay Pacific Cargo Milestones. Cathay Pacific Cargo.com
2006, May. Cathay Pacific stripping paint from Boeing 747 freighters to cut costs. FlightGlobal
2006, June. Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific orders six Boeing 747-400ER Freighters powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4062A engines. FlightGlobal
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: