New Cargo Conversion Options Gain Momentum
The silver lining of aviation’s COVID-19 cloud has been the boom in cargo and—for MRO shops—the related spike in cargo conversions. The pandemic has given rise to more options for converting aircraft to freighter configurations and a growing number of providers to perform these conversions.
The cargo boom has accelerated Airbus’ expansion into a market once heavily dominated by Boeing. This has turned newer aircraft types into conversion candidates while sustaining conversions of older types, such as the Boeing 767 and 757.
Higher fuel prices and stronger pressures to reduce CO2 emissions have tilted airlines toward newer, more efficient models, increasing the feedstock for converting older types.
Because e-commerce has been such an important part of the cargo surge, there is a greater incentive to move air cargo operations from hubs to smaller, outlying destinations, creating tasks best suited to narrowbodies or smaller regional aircraft. Consequently, conversion opportunities have exploded for ATR and Embraer aircraft as well as Bombardier CRJs and De Havilland Canada Dash 8s.
The cargo-hauling market is cooling as economic growth slows and widebody belly space comes back, and e-commerce giants such as Amazon are expanding more slowly. The International Air Transport Association reports cargo volume fell nearly 14% in both October and November 2022, compared with the same months in 2021.
But the conversion market has been permanently altered in the last several years, and it will offer shops, lessors and cargo carriers much greater flexibility in dealing with market shifts over the next decade. Conversion possibilities now include many different aircraft, various configurations for the most popular aircraft and a variety of combination and quick-change versions for a number of aircraft.
Most conversions take at least one month and sometimes many more, depending on aircraft size and the complexity of work. Passenger interiors must be removed, floors strengthened and new fire-suppression systems installed. Barriers capable of resisting multiple G forces are usually installed between the cargo and cockpit, and additional doors must be cut—large doors for loading pallets or smaller ones for packages.
A host of other modifications, such as window plugs, are made according to specific conversion plans. Generally, modification companies try to minimize empty operating weight to maximize payloads. Payload and range are the most important characteristics of converted aircraft.
Payload is most commonly measured by weight, but volume in cubic feet or the number and type of pallets carried are sometimes used as well. An operator’s business model dictates which payload metrics it uses. Range in nautical miles is influenced by weight actually carried—maximum range cannot be achieved with maximum weight.
Airframe OEMs almost always are involved with programs for their major conversion candidates, but independent shops or engineering companies often develop their own designs, which may boost capacity or emphasize features that some customers want. In any case, they expand the variety of conversion options and locations available. Customer orientation has been a strong focus of the conversion business for a long time and has increased in the last few years.
No new conversion can match the Boeing 747-400’s enormous payload capacity of nearly 127 tons. The Bedek division of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) still offers the 747-400 conversion. However, Airbus, Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) and ST Engineering, joined by partners around the world, have put together Airbus A330-200 and -300 conversion programs that can offer 61-63 tons. By September 2022, the EFW-ST Engineering venture had delivered 20 converted A330s; it has orders for 100 more. IAI also offers a 67-ton version of the A330-300.
Avensis Aviation received European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification for its Medius conversion modification for A330s in the summer of 2022, according to CEO Cristian Sutter. It is working on a similar conversion for Airbus A340s and different conversions for Airbus widebodies while exploring options for Boeing widebodies. Avensis conversions are done by multiple MRO partners in addition to shops contracted by customers. Sutter says Medius-converted A330-300s, which can carry up to 69 tons, are being operated by two customers.
Jonathan McDonald, manager of classic and cargo aircraft at aviation consultancy IBA, estimates that as 2022 ended, 21 A330s had been converted, two-thirds of which were -300s. Although few A330s have been converted so far, conversion programs for them have picked up strength in the last two years.
Going down a notch in size, IAI and partners in Mexico and Ethiopia offer Boeing 767 conversions with capacity of 50-64 tons, and several MROs in Asia also offer 767 conversions. Boeing has delivered more than 60 of its version, the 767-300BCF, at three active conversion sites. It has orders for more than 40 more.
Boeing’s 767-300BCF was launched with All Nippon Airways in 2005, and first delivery occurred in June 2008. Boeing argues that this is the world’s most efficient medium widebody twin-engine converted freighter.
McDonald reports a total of 176 767-300 conversions through 2022, with nearly two-thirds of these 767-300ER BDSFs, the IAI version with extended range. Total 767-300 conversions have been numerous in recent years, with more than two dozen converted annually in 2021 and 2022.
Meanwhile, the race is on to handle much bigger payloads with converted Boeing 777s. A General Electric Aerospace-IAI joint venture hopes to deliver 110 tons with its 777-300ERSF. Two rival companies, the Kansas Modification Center (KMC) and Mammoth Freighters, are competing to offer 777 payloads in the 100-105-ton range.
David Dotzenroth, a former 777 pilot and original partner in the KMC business, says the program is taking a cautious approach by staying within OEM weight limits and putting the cargo door forward of the engines. He expects post-737 MAX FAA certification approaches to be very strict, yet the company hopes to have a converted aircraft on the ramp by the end of 2023, with certification and delivery in 2024.
The newest narrowbody conversions are Airbus types. ST Engineering-EFW has completed 12 Airbus A321-200 conversions and one A320, and it has orders for 90 A321s. Precision and C Cubed also convert A321-200s, which can carry 50% more payload than the smaller A320. In all, 18 A321-200s have been converted, 11 in 2022 alone, McDonald says.
These A320-200 conversion programs are growing rapidly. HAECO Xiamen, currently working on two lines of 757-200 conversions, will shift all three of its lines to A321-200 conversions by the end of 2023, according to Zach Young, director of sales and marketing at Precision Aircraft Solutions, which is partnering with HAECO on the conversions. “The A321 conversion program is expected to be a 25-year program at least,” he says. “We have five conversion sites with multiple lines each.”
Converted Boeing 737 Classics and 737NGs have long served the cargo market. McDonald counts 141 737-300s converted—the great majority being 737-300SFs and the rest -300BDSFs, a type developed by IAI—and 187 737-400s, mostly -400SFs, with the rest IAI types. But for both -300s and -400s, recent conversions have been tapering off.
Pemco and Aeronautical Engineers Inc. (AEI) have been very active with these classic narrowbodies. Pemco offers a full 737-300 freighter, a quick-change version of the same type, a -400 freighter with 50% more payload than the -300, and a -400 combi with passenger space. However, Mike Andrews, director of cargo conversions at Pemco, expects its 737 Classic conversions to be finished by 2024 and future work to focus on 737NGs.
So far, eight 737-700BDSFs have been converted by IAI. A total of 157 -800s have been converted; McDonald says conversions of this type have been increasing in recent years. IAI has performed 10 of these, but the vast majority are either -800BCFs, developed by Boeing but also offered by shops around the world, or -800SFs, done by AEI.
Boeing recently delivered its 100th 737-800BCF, and it has active conversion lines at five sites. It plans to add 737-800BCF lines at KF Aerospace in 2023. The OEM stresses that 737-800BCFs have up to 20% lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions per unit of payload carried than the previous generation of narrowbodies.
Andrews’ staff at Pemco has begun work on 737-700s and offers both full and several combi versions for this type.
AEI has begun converting 737-800s, too, and these types also can be converted in Central America, Canada, the UK and China. IAI works on both -700s and -800s, partnering with Mexicana on the former type.
The roomiest converted narrowbody is the Boeing 757: The converted 757-200 can carry 30-100% more payload than the A320 family and other Boeing narrowbodies. McDonald says more than 300 757-200s have been converted, with 10-12 done annually in recent years. Precision and several Chinese shops are active in this type. AerSale purchased two dozen 757-200s, confident there would be a market for the heavier Boeing jet.
Only AEI offers conversions on the lighter MD-80.
Boeing is focused on its active programs: the 737-800BCF and 767-300BCF. The company says decisions to launch a new program will be largely driven by customer needs and market demand.
For even thinner routes and lighter loads, a number of regional aircraft, both regional jets and turboprops, are being fitted for cargo operations.
ATR 42-300s and -500s, as well as 72-200s and -500s, can be converted, and 42-600s and 72-600s will be eligible in the near future, according to ATR Business Development Director Gilles Collaveri. Most ATR conversions are bulk freighters, while the rest have large doors for pallets. ATR also offers Cargo-Flex, which provides extra cargo space in the front of cabin and can be installed quickly: The change between full passenger and passenger/cargo configurations can be done overnight.
About 150 ATR conversions have been done, and the pace has been picking up in the last five years. Seventeen were completed in 2021 and about the same number in 2022. Collaveri attributes the quickening pace to e-commerce’s need for “the last airfreight leg.”
AEI and Avmax are concentrating on Canadair Regional Jets, with the former offering a large cargo-door model that can handle eight pallets. Avmax is offering several versions of CRJ100s and -200s that can carry slightly more weight.
Embraer is offering significantly larger payloads on its conversions of E190s and E195s. The program kicked off in May 2022 with an agreement with Nordic Aviation Capital (NAC) for 10 conversions. NAC plans to place the first two E190P2Fs with Astral Aviation from Kenya. Embraer also has signed a firm order for up to 10 conversions with another customer.
At the end of 2022, Embraer cut its first metal for a converted freighter, part of the main deck door. Deliveries are slated to start in 2024, and Embraer expects to ramp up capacity to 10-12 aircraft per year, each taking 3-4 months, with room for growth.
De Havilland Aircraft of Canada is offering several versions of its DHC-8-400s, which are struggling in passenger markets against competition from ATR. A quick- change package carrier and pallet model with a large cargo door will be modified at Ethiopian, which also is working on widebody modification with IAI.
Sweden’s Taby Air Maintenance has been busy modifying Saab 340As and 340Bs, and its partner C&L Aviation is converting 340Bs in the U.S. Taby has completed conversions of more than 30 340As, and it has begun a modification program for the larger Saab 2000 with launch customer Jetstream Aviation Capital. Rollout is expected in weeks.
The first conversion of a Saab 340A was completed in March 2007. For the next decade, 1-2 conversions were performed each year. “But over the last few years, the requests for cargo conversions have increased significantly,” notes Taby spokesman Anders Annerfalk. Taby estimates that it will convert between five and seven 340Bs in 2023.
Even business aircraft are getting into the cargo game, as Cessna offers a kit for converting its passenger-carrying turboprop into a SkyCourier freighter or combi. “Through the use of quick-release mechanisms and pins, two people can complete the conversions in approximately 1 hr.,” spokesman Whitney Watson says. “Operators can convert the aircraft in the field, provided a mechanic is available to sign off on the new configuration.” Watson notes that a number of customers have ordered pure freighter and combi conversions.
Whatever the short-term prospects for cargo traffic, operators are still hungry for converted freighters.