There is much action in the passenger to freighter conversion programmes with OEMs recently launching key programmes. Among all P2F programmes, it is the narrow body freighter that emerges as the star.
At the Paris Air Show last year, Airbus, through its subsidiary Elbe Flugzeugwerke and Singapore Technologies Aerospace announced a joint venture to develop a passenger to freighter (P2F) conversion for the A320 and A321 narrow-body aircraft. This was then considered a significant development and was expected to provide competition for the numerous Boeing P2F programmes.
In February, this year, Boeing launched the 737-800 Converted Freighter Programme with orders and commitments for up to 55 aircraft from seven customers.
The 737-800 is the newest addition to this passenger-to-freight program, also offered for the 767-300 and the 747-400. The incorporation allows Boeing to offer a comprehensive freighter product portfolio, with economically-feasible solutions for cargo carriers in emerging markets, taking advantage of a large amount of 737s that are expected to be retired from passenger service in the coming years.
“While the recovery of the global cargo market has been slow, we see demand for freighters, such as the 737-800BCF, that will carry express cargo on domestic routes,” says Stan Deal, senior vice president, commercial aviation services, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Airbus is convinced that the ability of the A320 family to take ULD (Unit Load Devices) 3-45 sized containers in its belly is an advantage.
However, today Boeing has a virtual monopoly on that market, with the 737-300 and -400 comprising most of the conversions, and development of programme for the 737-800 underway. Over the next 20 years, Boeing forecasts customers will need more than 1,000 converted freighters the size of the 737, with China’s domestic air freight carriers accounting for nearly one-third of the total market.
According to an Airbus 20-year forecast, the demand is for 1000 single aisle aircraft conversions. “Out of those about 600 aircraft conversions will take place in the classic ‘Narrow-body’ segment and another 400 conversions in the segment of the ageing 757 freighters. The 757 freighter conversion itself is going to become obsolete soon as the last passenger aircraft will exceed typical conversion windows in a few years. Thereafter the closest replacement candidate is the A321P2F which will soon dominate its market segment once it is available,” said Thomas Centner, Director Sales Aircraft Conversion for EFW, an Airbus and ST Aerospace Company.
Centner confirmed that the company has started to develop the conversion STC (Supplemental Type Certificate) and expecting PDR (Preliminary Design Review) soon. As for a launch customer Centner said: “Just recently we have started to approach customers with commercial contents and we target to have a launch customer soon.”
One of the reasons for the rising demand for narrow-body freighter is the rapidly growing air express sector on account of e-commerce and e-retail.
In March, this year, Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) announced its deal with Amazon to operate an air cargo network of 20 ATSG-owned Boeing 767s to serve Amazon customers in the US.
“Narrow-body freighters have very often been used to develop routes on relatively low risk. When it comes to fleet development they are for us the baseline of success for larger freighter aircraft, especially in the medium wide-body segment. This typical pattern was historically seen at the big western Express carriers many years ago and it is currently repeated by a number of emerging Asian carriers, which will grow from narrow-body freighters into wide-bodies. Regarding the e-commerce boom we do not see an ending so there’s continuously strong potential. And we believe to be very well positioned in the express segment,” said Centner.
Most of the launch customers for the Boeing converted programme are Chinese cargo airlines. Hangzhou-based YTO Airlines has ordered 10 conversions with commitments for 10 additional conversions, while China Postal Airlines has ordered 10 conversions. In addition, Boeing has secured 13 commitments from SF Airlines and Bulgarian carrier Cargo Air.
Recently, US-based conversion specialist Aeronautical Engineers, Inc (AEI) booked a firm order for fifteen 737-800 passenger-to-freighter conversions, with an option for fifteen more, from an unidentified customer.