GE Capital Aviation Services or GECAS recently delivered the first Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the prototype passenger-to-freighter conversion for “The Big Twin” programme announced last October. Registered as OE-IHW and now owned by GECAS, the aircraft MSN 32789, ferried from Dubai to Tel Aviv, has been previously operated by Emirates as A6-EBB.
It appears that the Covid-19 pandemic has advanced the programme by at least six months. The aircraft was originally scheduled to be delivered to IAI in December 2020 with certification and service entry scheduled for late 2022. Once the line is up and running, according to GECAS, conversion time will average four to five months per aircraft. As of now IAI plans to open for the GECAS work with three lines of 777 conversions. But IAI will consider opening more lines depending on market demands.
The first B777-300ER passenger aircraft for conversion arrives in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel
“The arrival of the prototype aircraft in Tel Aviv is an exciting milestone for the ‘Big Twin’ freighter programme,” said Richard Greener, senior vice president and manager of GECAS Cargo. “This aircraft sets out to meet requirements of the air cargo industry for the next 20 years.”
At the IAI facility in Lod near Tel Aviv airport, the aircraft will undergo an extensive conversion including the addition of the main deck cargo Door, freighter lining, window plugs, a modified crew compartment, a reinforced fuselage, a 9G rigid cargo barrier and more.
GECAS owned but previously Emirates operated B777-300ER takes off from Dubai and lands in Tel Aviv
Setting a new benchmark for cargo operators, “The Big Twin” will be powered by GE90 engines — the world’s most powerful in-service engine — giving the B777-300ER Special Freighter (SF) 21 percent lower fuel burn per tonne than the B747-400F. Complimenting the B777-200LRF, the 777-300ERSF shares extensive commonality with the smaller twin production freighter.
“We’re dubbing the B-777-300ERSF the ‘Big Twin’ as it is larger than the factory freighter,” said Greener, while launching the programme last year. The 777-300ERSF will be the largest ever twin-engine freighter.
According to GECAS 300ERSF has 47 standard 96 x 125in [2.4 x 3.2m] pallet positions in total. This means that overall it has 10 more positions that a 777-200LRF production freighter or 5,800cb ft [164cb m] more volume. It also has eight more positions than a factory B747-400F.
The B777-300ERSF’s maximum structural payload of 101.6 tonnes and greater volume than the B777 production freighter mean it is optimised for the lower cargo densities of the e-commerce and express operators rather than the traditional general freight operators. GECAS also argues that with the cargo density of around 7.5-8lb/cu ft, the B777-300ERSF can carry 20 tonnes more than a B777F, at 50 percent of the cost.
As launch customer and co-owner of the programme, GECAS has committed fifteen firm orders and has fifteen additional options for the type. While launching the programme, GECAS forecasted that “The Big Twin” could secure more than 150 orders up to 2030. And this becomes the first after-market cargo modification launched for the B-777 family.
Boeing produces the new-build all-cargo 777F, which is based on the shorter-fuselage 200LR platform. The production freighter is considers to be the most efficient freighter operated in the world today.
B777-300ERSF sets a new benchmark for cargo operators
The decision by GECAS and IAI to launch a Boeing 777-300ERSF passenger-to-freighter conversion programme is turning out to be more and more prescient as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hit hard international long-haul passenger aviation. Several wide-body aircraft are grounded and there are airlines deciding to retire some of their B-777 aircraft much earlier than they had originally planned. This would mean that this very popular wide-body fleet may be ready for freighter conversion programmes.
IAI is eager to look at converting B777-300ERs of other owners as well. The programme will also see IAI enter into conversion agreements for the 777-300ERSF directly with airlines as well as other lessors around the world.
With the B767 nearing its end of life and the MD11 is being phased out, IAI hopes that the new conversion programme platform could be the future for the next two decades. The market opportunity seems ample. Since 2004, Boeing has delivered well over 800 777-300ERs, with Emirates Airlines operating the largest fleet of the type. Conversions programmes for wide-body are offered only by IAI and Boeing while others concentrate on the narrow-body aircraft.
Could this passenger to freighter converted aircraft offer a suitable option to the existing freighters in operation? Many in the industry see this as a profitable tool for airlines and their bottom lines.
This feature was originally published in June 2020 issue of The STAT Trade Times