Qantas is in negotiations to buy several Boeing 747-400 freighters as it weighs up its options before the expiry of a large contract with an American cargo airline.
The airline is believed to have entered talks to buy up to four second-hand jumbos - one of which has a sticker price of about $US60 million. But Qantas is yet to commit to a purchase of dedicated freighter aircraft. It is one of several options the airline is considering before the expiry early next year of a contract to lease two 747s and crew - known as a wet lease - from Atlas Air. A wet lease on another Atlas Air jumbo is up in 2015.
The other options include leasing planes, entering into a contract with another cargo airline or renewing the deal with Atlas Air to carry freight on international routes, including to Asia.
The price for gas-guzzling 747s has tumbled over the past year due to high fuel prices.
Should it buy the jumbos, Qantas is considered likely to house them under its subsidiary, Express Freighters Australia, and potentially hire new pilots.
But any move to recruit new pilots will draw the ire of Qantas' existing workforce because it has a surplus of more than 200 pilots due to scaling back its international network. Captains employed by Express Freighters earn about $170,000 a year, half the salary of a Qantas captain flying a 747 passenger jet on international routes.
Any purchase of planes would be funded through Qantas' existing capital expenditure.
A Qantas spokesman confirmed that the airline was "looking at a range of options, but no decision has been made and we're not in a position to speculate about what we might do".
Qantas' freight division has five of its own planes, including a Boeing 767 used on the trans-Tasman route, and several 737 freighters. Qantas carries 5 per cent of the air freight between China and the US.
The freight division booked a pre-tax profit of $22 million in the first half of this financial year, down from $38 million previously, which was blamed on a weak domestic market and strong competition. But the international operations of the freight business were said to be strong in the first half.
As part of an overhaul, Qantas is folding into its freight division the underperforming Australian Air Express, whose fleet includes four Boeing 737-300s and three BAe-146 jets.
The air-freight market tends to be the canary in the coal mine for airlines. In the midst of the global financial crisis in 2008, demand for freight fell considerably further and faster than passenger traffic.