Chinese all-cargo carrier to start US operations in 2020

Chinese cargo plane flying with view from below

The U.S. Department of Transportation has approved Shenzhen, China-based SF Airlines to begin scheduled and charter cargo flights between any U.S. and Chinese points.

The 10-year-old company has the largest freighter fleet in China, with 57 all-cargo aircraft in service, flying to more than 60 cities and regions at home and abroad. It is the in-house airline for sister company SF Express. This year it has expanded international operations into Central Asia and Europe, helping to support China’s “Belt and Road” initiative for extending national power through infrastructure investments and cultivating exports.

SF Airlines plans to start operating to the U.S. in 2020 but has not yet settled on a destination, said a source close to the company who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the matter.

The carrier, which also operates from hubs in Hangzhou and Beijing, originally applied to launch thrice-weekly service to New York beginning in September.

The route license issued earlier this month is good for one year, according to a notice posted on a U.S. government website.

SF Airlines applied for an exemption from a foreign air carrier permit, which is a faster process that requires much less information and is generally less expensive for a carrier than seeking a full permit. In cases involving a non-Open Skies country like China, an exemption is good for one year and can be renewed annually. 

Open Skies agreements eliminate government interference in the commercial decisions of airlines related to routes, capacity and pricing. The additional flexibility enables airlines to operate more efficiently and participate in alliances, helping to make air travel more convenient and affordable for consumers.

Exemptions are valid for two years for countries that have liberalized their air market.

Some carriers start with an exemption and then migrate to a full permit, whereas others prefer to continually renew their licenses. Renewals tend to cost less than the original application, according to aviation experts.

The new European service to Frankfurt Hahn Airport eventually will offer 600 tons of capacity to Europe every week, with a maximum payload of 110 tons on each B 747-400 flight, the company said. In November, the carrier added a second flight to India to address the growing e-commerce market.

The carrier is owned by S.F. Holding Co., which is traded on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and also owns delivery company SF Express. The S.F. Group recently raised $820 million in the bond market to help pay for conversion of three Boeing 757-200 passenger aircraft into freighters.

Air Cargo World first reported on the SF license approval, but had limited details.

(Jim Smith contributed to this story.)