Sept. 26, 2022, © Leeham News: I sat down with Fred Smith, the founder and now executive chairman of FedEx, on Sept. 15 at the US Chamber of Commerce Aerospace Summit. The first article appears here.
The balance of the interview covered a wide range of topics. I’ll summarize them below.
Airbus proposed the concept of a single-pilot A350 Freighter. Boeing also is floating the prospect of a single-pilot aircraft for its next new airplane. The idea is hardly new. A single-pilot jetliner has been discussed since the 1990s.
The freighters may just lead the way for big jets. FedEx already worked with Sikorsky to allow single-pilot operation in its ATR turboprop freighters, Smith said in an interview with LNA. He’s okay with the idea for the A350.
“I think it’s perfectly fine for freighter operations,” Smith said. “You can buy a TBM [a small. Single engine turboprop] or a small, single-engine passenger airplane and if the pilot is incapacitated, you punch a button, and it lands at the next airfield. So, [a single pilot] is not a problem. We’ve worked with Sikorsky on developing a single pilot ATR. It works fine for cargo operations, as long as you have the capability for the plane in the event of the pilot’s incapacitation to autonomously land. For cargo operations, I think it would be fine.
“The big airplanes, like the Airbus, I think where they’re headed more than anything else is to minimize the supernumerary crews [an extra crew member on long flights]. We have flights of over 12 hours, so you have to have a full augmented crew. You have to have four pilots on it. Between eight and 12 hours, you have to have three. I think what Airbus is thinking about for freighters is for long-distance flying, you would have just one in the cockpit and one supine.”
But Smith doesn’t think a single pilot for passenger operations is ready for prime time. “I’m not talking about passenger operations. And I think autonomous transport operations are a bridge too far. I think you would get a lot of sociological and regulatory pushback. We don’t endorse fully autonomous airplanes. There are some real issues. You don’t want them to become missiles like on 9/11,” Smith said.
FedEx has about 150 767 freighters in its fleet. Under emissions standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2017, production of the 767F and the Boeing 777-200LRF must cease from 2028. Implementation of the standards is left to the ICAO member governments. The Federal Aviation Administration notified the US industry it plans to adopt the ICAO standards. Boeing wants an exemption from the FAA for the 767F, but there’s no guarantee it will be granted.
The wing spans of the A350, 787, and 777-8F are larger than the 767. The payloads are substantially greater, too, making these airplanes ill-suited for a direct 767 replacement. Ramp space is so tight that Smith said FedEx has so many planes on the tarmac that the airline didn’t even put winglets on the 767.
Boeing is developing a new airplane concept loosely based on the New Midmarket Airplane that CEO David Calhoun shelved in 2020 upon taking office in January. This airplane, roughly the same size as the 767, is a candidate to succeed the 767F. (Boeing is also studying creating a 787F.)
“The 767 is a completely unique airplane the way it exists today. If they do an NMA-based airplane that’s a freighter or if they do something else, then that makes a lot of sense. But at the moment, there’s nothing that really competes with the 767,” Smith said.
The A350F is a composite airplane and the 787F would be, too. Airbus developed the A350 using a giant panel design. The 787 is a barrel design. Creating a freighter out of the panel design is easier than for the 787’s barrel. Each airplane is substantially lighter than a metal fuselage aircraft. But there are other issues working against each.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s something that if you bought the A350 or 787, I think you’d have to go with your eyes wide open,” Smith said. “Nobody has even seen what a freighter looks like in 20 years with all composites or the Airbus philosophy. But those airplanes are so efficient because of the weight. The A350 is 75,000 lbs operating empty weight less than a 777-8. It’s more conservative on the Eight. You’ve got the aluminum fuselage and you have the same cargo door advantages off-setting the weight savings.”
A Boeing 777-300ER P2F conversion brings commonality to FedEx’s 777LRF, but it’s 30 feet longer, presenting parking challenges. But converting -300ERs reduces complexity. “Complexity present problems for very, very big organizations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp rise in cargo demand. But with the pandemic more or less under control, passenger traffic is recovering. Coupled with the Ukrainian war, FedEx last week announced that demand has softened so much, it will park airplanes for an indefinite time. Revenues between Air and Ground will be about $500m and $300m less, respectively, this year.
With international passenger traffic beginning to recover, this, too, impacts FedEx and other dedicated freighter operations.
“The first thing you have to put into the equation is the resumption of widebody passenger service,” Smith said. “Depending on what theatre you’re talking about, these carry a huge amount of freighter across the Atlantic, it’s the majority of the freight. In the Pacific, it was roughly 50-50.
FedEx has two classes of service, Priority, and Economy. The ground service is the same. “But if we have an extra day and the connections make sense, we’ll put it on one of our partner carriers. Our biggest hub is in Charles De Gaulle in Paris,” Smith said.
The trade war with China hurts, too.
“There are some who want to cut off all relations with China. That’s absurd. We’re just hurting ourselves. It’s a lot more likely that we won’t get into a war with China if we’re trading with them. We’re still better off in my opinion trading with the Chinese than not.”
Smith said the Biden Administration should remove the tariffs the Trump Administration imposed. Doing so would improve relations between the US and China. Doing so would also help Boeing, which has only delivered a handful of freighters to China in recent years.