Demand for narrowbody freighters is going off the charts in China.
How many times have you read the words “e-commerce is exploding in China” on these pages? Probably enough times to be tired of hearing it, but that doesn’t make it any less true, or any less important to the air freight and express industry.
And to the freighter conversion industry.
Demand for general freight on the transcontinental lanes may have stopped growing (Cathay Pacific just reported November cargo traffic down 3.2% y-o-y), but no one in China seems to be able to get that pair of shoes ordered from T-Mall fast enough, and the country’s domestic express carriers are ordering freighters as fast as they can to keep up with demand for express shipping.
The latest example of the order frenzy is today’s announcement that China Postal Airlines has signed an agreement with Boeing for ten 737-800BCF passenger-to-freighter conversions. Of course, just as with YTO Express’ fifteen-unit launch order for the program, this order comes with the caveat that it only takes effect if/when Boeing launches the program. But, given the continuing strong demand for narrowbody freighters, formal launch now seems highly likely.
But while an order for ten 737-800 conversions is big, it really isn’t big enough to be called “massive.” So why did we use that term in the title of this post? Because, hidden in the middle of Boeing’s announcement of the agreement, was a note that the order “also includes the purchase of seven Boeing 757-200s that the airline plans to convert into freighters.” That brings the total to seventeen, which we think qualifies as “massive” – but that is not the end of it.
China Postal Airlines is a joint venture of the Chinese Postal Bureau (51%) and Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines (49%), and Cargo Facts believes
- That China Southern is the source of the 757-200 feedstock for the seven conversions (with the deal going through Boeing because Chinese carriers have a difficult time selling aircraft directly due to overinflated book values), and
- That the seven 757s are just Part 1 of a two-part deal, with China Postal likely taking all thirteen of China Southern’s 757-200s over the next few years. (China Southern may also to be the source of the feedstock for the ten 737-800BCF conversions, but that remains to be seen.)
Conversion of the 737-800s to BCF configuration will, obviously, be done by Boeing, but what about conversion of the 757-200s? Two conversion houses currently offer passenger-to-freighter conversion programs for the 757-200: Precision Aircraft Solutions and Singapore Technologies Aerospace (ST Aero). No announcement has been made, but three factors lead us believe the contract is likely to go to Precision:
- China Postal currently ACMI-leases four Precision-converted 757-200PCFs from Air China. This doesn’t preclude a switch to a different conversion house, but fleet commonality is an important operational consideration.
- The four 757-200PCFs above are in fifteen-pallet configuration, and, while ST Aero is working toward certification a fifteen-pallet program, it is not there yet. Precision is currently the only source of fifteen-pallet 757 conversions.
- Chinese carriers almost always require conversions to be done in China, and Precision has strong relationships with both HAECO and Air China Technic – having used both to perform conversions. As far as we know, ST Aero has done all of its conversions (of all types, not just 757-200s) in either Singapore or the US.
But whoever does the conversions, the real story here is that, as we said above, Chinese consumers are doing their shopping online, and they want their purchases delivered immediately. Not next week, but right now – and that means that orders for freighter conversions are going to keep pouring in.