Mark Broadbent profiles some of the latest developments in the expanding area of passenger-to-freighter conversions
COMMERCIAL FREIGHTER CONVERSIONS
A lot is happening in the passengerto- freighter (P2F) conversions market right now. December saw the first completed A330P2F conversion from the Airbus, ST Aerospace and Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) collaboration delivered to a customer.
This milestone will be followed in 2018 by the same partnership starting work on the initial A321P2F conversion. The year is also scheduled to see the first deliveries from the Boeing 737-800 conversion programmes run by Boeing and the conversions specialists Aeronautical Engineers Inc (AEI).
All this activity and more is evidence of a boom in the converted freighters market segment and this is growth the industry expects will be sustained for many years to come.
In 2012, a co-operative venture was announced between Airbus, ST Aerospace in Singapore and Dresden-based EFW, covering conversions for legacy A330-200s and A330- 300s. The agreement involved ST Aerospace leading engineering development and EFW leading the industrial phase, with Airbus providing OEM data and certification support.
The first two conversions are A330-300P2Fs for DHL Express, which has ordered eight examples (it has options on ten more). EgyptAir Cargo is the launch customer for the A330- 200P2F. The first A330-300P2F for DHL was converted by EFW in Dresden; it completed test flights in October 2017 and entered service in December following European Aviation Safety Agency approval. This is later than initially planned, as when the A330P2F was launched the target was to deliver the first aircraft in 2016.
Of the two models the A330-300P2F is designed to be, Airbus says: “suitable for integrators and express carriers, thanks to its high volumetric payload capability with lowerdensity cargo. Meanwhile, the A330-200P2F will be optimised for higher-density freight and longer-range performance.”
According to EFW, the A330-300P2F will carry up to 61,000kg (134,500lb) with a 526m3 (18,581ft3) volume, providing capacity for 26 96 x 125-inch (2.4 x 3.1m) unit load devices (ULDs) or 26 88 x 125-inch (2.2 x 3.1m) main deck ULDs. On the lower deck, the aircraft will carry 32 LD3s or nine 96 x 125-inch ULDs and two 88 x 125-inch ULDs.
The A330-200P2F will carry up to 60,000kg (132,300lb) and have 453m3 (16,016ft3) of volume. Its main deck capacity will be 22 96 x 125-inch ULDs or 23 88 x 125-inch ULDs, with 26 lower deck LD3s (or eight 96 x 125-inch ULDs and two LD3s).
EFW says the A330P2Fs will have up to 30% more volume while using up to 20% less fuel per tonne of payload compared to the A300-600P2F, which the A330P2F is designed to replace.
The conversion work involves installing a Class E cargo compartment and linings, window plugs, a main-deck cargo door on the left-hand side of the fuselage, a new reinforced floor grid and panels, a cargo loading system, a 9g barrier net, smoke curtain, door surround structures and a courier area. The conversion also deactivates doors two, three and four, installs new smoke detection and air distribution systems, and upgrades water and waste systems, hydraulics and lighting.
A direct competitor for the A330P2F in the midsize market segment is the converted Boeing 767-300/767-300ER. There are currently two conversion options for this aircraft: Boeing’s own 767-300BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter) and the 767-300BDSF (Bedek Special Freighter) conversion offered under a supplemental type certificate (STC) by IAI Bedek, the maintenance, repair and overhaul and conversions arm of Israel Aerospace Industries.
Boeing’s 767-300BCF has 24 positions for 88 x 125-inch ULDs on the main deck and can lift approximately 114,500lb (51,930kg) of payload. IAI Bedek’s 767-300BDSF also offers 24 main-deck positions for 88 x 125- inch ULDs. The Israeli company’s product offers a total structural payload of 125,200lb (56,699kg) for winglet-equipped aircraft or 128,200lb (58,150kg) for those without winglets. The 767-300BDSF complements IAI Bedek’s other 767 P2F conversion, the 767- 200BDSF for 767-200s/767-200ERs, which carries a typical load of 19 88 x 125-inch ULDs and offers a maximum take-off weight of up to 351,000lb (159,210kg).
The 767-300BDSF/767-200BDSF conversions are carried out by Bedek in Tel Aviv. The 767-300BCF work is undertaken for Boeing by ST Aerospace in Singapore and, from 2018, by Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corporation in Taiwan, which previously converted three 747-400Fs into the 747-400LCFs used to transport 787 fuselage subassemblies to the Dreamliner assembly lines.
George Alabí, Regional Director, Product Marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told AIR International that Boeing has received 33 orders and commitments for the 767-300BCF since launching the conversion back in 2005.
All Nippon Airways was the first operator in 2008. The 767-300BCF commitments include an order for nine jets placed in 2016 by Atlas Air, one of three companies that fly 767 freighters for Amazon Prime Air, the others being ABX Air and Air Transport International. Other 767s operated for Prime Air include Bedek-converted 767-300BDSFs.
The current activity in the conversions market does not just involve widebodies. Right now, Airbus, ST Aerospace and EFW are in addition to the A330P2F working on the A320/A321P2F conversion programme launched at the 2015 Paris Air Show.
The A320P2F will have 11 main-deck ULD positions and carry 21,000kg (46,297lb) over 2,100 nautical miles (3,889km) and the A321 P2F will have 14 main-deck positions, a 27,000kg (59,524lb) payload and 1,900 nautical miles (3,158km) range.
“We will be able to induct an A321 to our facility in the third quarter of 2018.”
This conversions for the aircraft will install a cargo door on the forward fuselage, a Class E main deck cargo compartment and a 9g rigid cargo/smoke barrier, window plugs and a reinforced floor grid and floor panels. Doors 2R, 3L, 3R, 4L and 4R will be deactivated and mechanically locked and, like the A330P2F, there will be upgraded hydraulic, fire protection, lighting, air distribution and cockpit systems.
Airbus says advantages of the A320/ A321P2F will include a more useable volume and compatibility with the A330P2F enabling crews to move across fleets and airlines to carry out mixed-fleet flying.
An ST Aerospace spokesperson told AIR International: “[The company is] confident we will be able to induct an A321 to our facility in the third quarter [of 2018]”, to start work on the first conversion, ready for delivery in 2019.
In 2018, Boeing will deliver its first 737-800BCF, which since its February 2016 launch has secured 30 firm orders and 25 commitments, mainly from Chinese carriers, including YTO Airlines and China Postal Airlines. The conversions will take place at Boeing Shanghai Aviation Services and STAECO in Jinan.
The 737-800BCF is designed to carry up to 52,800lb (23,949kg) of cargo on 2,023 nautical mile (3,750km) routes. The aircraft has 12 ULD positions, with 5,000ft3 (141.5m3) of cargo space on the main deck. There is a further 1,540ft3 (43.7m3) of capacity in two lower-lobe compartments. Modifications required to convert a 737-800 into a freighter include installing a large main-deck cargo door, a cargo-handling system and accommodation for up to four non-flying crew members or passengers.
Alabí told AIR International: “[The 737- 800BCF] offers freighter operators newer technology, lower fuel consumption and better reliability.” Its higher payload capability and longer range compared to a converted 737 Classic will, he said, improve cargo operators’ ability to open new markets.
Boeing’s 737-800BCF conversion provides competition for two separate third-party products from AEI and IAI Bedek, which both hold STCs to convert 737-800s.
Miami-based AEI announced its 737-800SF programme in 2015. The company’s product sits alongside its other STCs for 737 Classics: an 11-pallet conversion for the 737-400, ten-pallet and nine-pallet conversions for the 737-300 and an eight-pallet option for the 737-200. AEI also offers eight-pallet and 12-pallet conversions for the Bombardier CRJ200 and the MD-80 respectively.
The AEI 737-800SF conversion will install an 86 x 140-inch (2.1 x 3.5m) cargo door on the left side of the fuselage and modify the main deck to a Class E cargo compartment able to carry 11 88 x 125-inch ULD and up to five supernumerary seats. Compared to the 52,800lb payload capability of Boeing’s in-house 737-800BCF, the AEI 737-800SF will offer a 52,000lb (23,587kg) main deck payload.
The cargo door will be hydraulically operated and actuated from the inside of the aircraft by an independent system using hydraulic pressure drawn from either an electrically operated hydraulic pump or a manual hand pump. There will be a reinforced floor, a single vent door system, cabin windows replaced with lightweight aluminium window plugs, a 9g rigid cargo/smoke barrier with a sliding door, a relocated digital flight data recorder enabling an 84.5-inch (2.1m) ceiling height throughout the cargo compartment and stretch-formed fuselage skins.
The IAI Bedek 737-800 P2F conversion is the 737-800BDSF, which offers three different configuration options: 11 88 x 125-inch ULDs and one 79 x 60.4-inch (2 x 1.5m) ULD; 11 88 x 108-inch ULDs and one 79 x 60.4-inch ULD; or nine 88 x 125-inch ULDs and one smaller ULD and a single pallet. The brochure for the 737-800BDSF quotes a 53,000lb (20,040kg) payload.
The first 737-800SF is due to be delivered by AEI to the conversion’s launch customer, GECAS, in 2018. The lessor has ordered 20 conversions from AEI and it is also the launch customer for Boeing’s 737-800BCF. The initial 737-800SF, last operated by Corendon Airlines in Turkey, was handed over by GECAS to AEI in Miami in May 2016. Altogether, AEI has secured 80 orders for the 12-pallet 737- 800SF. The first aircraft from an agreement with an undisclosed customer, covering 15 aircraft plus 15 options, is due to start conversion in 2018 for delivery in 2019.
In short, there’s a lot of activity in the conversions market. What explains it? A couple of trends are coalescing. Despite the choppy state of the air cargo market in recent years, the continued expansion in e-commerce – reflected by Amazon launching Prime Air – is stimulating freighter demand.
This trend isn’t likely to change, Boeing’s George Alabí told AIR International: “Increased demand is projected to continue in the coming years, as express carriers bolster regional networks to meet e-commerce and other time-critical air cargo needs.”
A growing feedstock of aircraft reaching the end of service as passenger airliners is another trend driving the P2F market. A time has been reached in the product life cycle of these aircraft where their residual values have fallen to a point where it is cost-effective for asset owners to convert them to freighters.
These background factors seeem as though they are set to keep the P2F conversions market buoyant well into the future, according to the manufacturers. Boeing’s latest Current Market Outlook out to 2036 predicts demand for 1,560 conversions (1,100 single-aisles and 460 widebodies) and Airbus’ latest Global Market Forecast envisages a requirement for 1,224 conversions over the next 20 years.
With this long-term potential it is little wonder there are set to be further developments in the market. In August 2017, Precision Aircraft Solutions and Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) announced the formation of 321 Precision Conversion to offer a P2F option for A321-200s. The new company aims to secure an STC for its conversion in 2019, which would obviously create competition for the Airbus/ ST Aerospace/EFW product. Precision and ATSG already have a decade-long relationship working on Precision’s Boeing 757-200PCF freighter and 757-200PCC passenger/ freighter combi conversions.
A further segment of the conversions market to monitor is the one for larger twinaisle widebodies. Previously converted aircraft in this size category, such as DC-10s, MD-11s and Boeing 747s, are ageing, and older 777- 200 and 777-200ER-series aircraft exiting passenger operations provide a new business opportunity to replace those veteran types.
There is a 777-200ER BCF project at the product development stage – Boeing’s marketing material for freighter products lists a notional aircraft with a capability to carry 165,346–176,369lb (75,000–80,000kg) payloads over a 3,900–4,100-nautical mile (7,200–7,600km) range – and reports over the last couple of years say IAI Bedek is looking at obtaining an STC to convert legacy 777s in the next few years.
Any Triple Seven conversions in the future would only underline the vitality of the P2F market in giving airliners second lives as freighters.