Passenger-to-freighter conversions keep on humming

Date: Friday, February 24, 2023
Source: FreightWaves

Leasing companies and airlines don’t appear concerned about oversaturating the air cargo market with freighters as they continue to place production orders despite a yearlong downturn in air cargo volumes and rates. Airframe overhaul facilities are scrambling to keep up with the demand for converting used passenger jets into dedicated cargo jets.

Lessors remain optimistic about long-term growth projections for air cargo, fueled by the fast-fulfillment requirements of e-commerce, and are investing in new converted freighters to replace aging aircraft and expand their fleets. Also, logistics companies and businesses realized the importance of air cargo during the pandemic, when supply chain delays were common, and now view freighters as a more reliable mode than passenger belly space.

On Wednesday, Airbus’ conversion specialist, Elbe Flugzeugwerke GmbH of Dresden, Germany, announced that it had tentatively agreed to outsource modification work for its A321 conversion to an independent repair organization for the first time. Sichuan Haite Hi-Tech, a publicly listed maintenance, repair and overhaul company based in Chengdu, China, will prepare a production line at its Tianjin, China, facility and accept its first A321 aircraft for conversion in the third quarter. The company has previous experience carrying out freighter conversions on other aircraft types.

Haite will give EFW four production lines for the narrowbody freighter. Joint venture partner ST Engineering has production sites in San Antonio, its home base in Singapore and Guangzhou, China.

“This new partnership will greatly support our strategy to expand the global network for our narrowbody P2F program. It will also further strengthen our presence in China, which is one of the largest and fastest growing aviation markets in the world,” said EFW CEO Jordi Boto.

EFW has been producing the A321 aftermarket freighter for 2 1/2 years. Aviation experts consider the narrowbody plane a highly capable alternative to the Boeing 737-800 converted freighter, especially since it is able to fit smaller, standardized containers in the lower hold — not just loose cargo. Many also envision it as a replacement for the Boeing 757, a large narrowbody jet that is increasingly scarce and approaching the end of its life cycle. The A321 has nearly as much volume as the 757 and burns 20% less fuel, making it a better financial option if the same range and payload aren’t needed.

EFW has delivered 16 passenger-to-freighter conversions of single-aisle aircraft, including one A320 — a slightly smaller sister to the A321 — so far. Last year, the company finished 19 conversions of the A320/321 and the larger A330 family. Additional facilities, including a new A330 production line at Chengdu-based Aircraft Maintenance and Engineering Corp. (Ameco) that is scheduled to open this year, are designed to bring the company’s production capacity to 60 aircraft per year by 2025, according to EFW.

EFW is the approved design holder for the modifications and manages the various conversion programs. It also has an A330 production facility in Dresden.

New production capacity

Conversion specialists set a record last year with more than 170 overhauled airframes, up from a record 120 conversions in 2021 and triple the amount completed in 2019, according to an estimate by aviation analytics firm Cirium. The number of passenger-to-freighter conversions has steadily increased at a 9% compound annual growth rate from 2010-21, driven by demand for standard-size freighters best suited for regional package networks.

U.S.-based rival 321 Precision Conversions, which started later than EFW, has delivered a handful of A321 passenger-to-freighter conversions but expects to significantly ramp up production this year and is booked out into 2025, according to Sales Director Zachary Young.

Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. Ltd. (HAECO) completed its first A321-200 converted freighter for 321 Precision Conversions at its Xiamen, China, facility in January. HAECO Xiamen has carried out 757 conversions for Beaverton, Oregon-based Precision Aircraft Solutions since 2010 and is preparing to switch a 757 production line to support the A321 by the summer. The company says it will add more A321 capacity in the near future.

321 Precision, a joint venture that includes cargo leasing and airline services conglomerate Air Transport Services Group, also has production partners in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Israel Aircraft Industries recently opened a 767 production line at the Jat Tehnika facility in Belgrade, Serbia, according to Cargo Facts, and a new facility for the 737-800 in Naples, Italy.

Mammoth Freighters, a U.S.-based startup gearing up to modify large 777 aircraft, last year secured production facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, and the U.K.


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