When we looked at the fleet at this time two years ago, the most striking thing was the number of 757-200s flying in freighter configuration. With 242 units in operation, the 757-200F had become the most popular freighter in the world, easily surpassing the 191 747-400Fs. In 2015, although six 747-400Fs were brought back into service, the gap increased as the number of 757 freighters rose to 256. This year, the redelivery of freighter-converted 757-200s has accelerated, and at the end of October we count 287 in service, a net gain of thirty-one over last year. Will the 757-200F one day overtake the 727-200F as the most popular freighter ever? Demand for 757 freighters remains strong and, while conversion feedstock is not infinite, only seventy-two more conversions need to be done to bring the total to 359, matching the 727-200F.
There are still more widebody freighters in operation than narrowbody, but the gap is shrinking, and narrowbodies now make up about 39% of the total commercial jet freighter fleet. We say “about 39%” because there is more than one way to count the fleet. For purposes of this article, we have chosen not to include the few remaining 707Fs and DC-8Fs, nor do we include aircraft in combi configuration. We do include some aircraft in Quick Change configuration, but only if we believe them to be operated full time as freighters. And while it could be argued that the BAe 146QT and CRJ200F are not true narrowbodies, we choose to include them.
Using these guidelines, we find that there are now 647 narrowbody freighters, of ten types, in commercial operation by 117 carriers, up from 601 at this time last year. Sixty-four of these carriers operate just one or two freighters, and the chart at right shows only those carriers operating three or more.
No narrowbody jet freighters are currently available as new-builds, and there are active passenger-to-freighter conversion programs for only five types: the 757-200F, MD-80F, 737-400F, 737-300F, and CRJ200F. Both Precision Aircraft Solutions and ST Aerospace offer P-to-F programs for the 757-200, while Aeronautical Engineers, Inc, Bedek Aviation Group, and PEMCO World Air Services offer P-to-F programs for both the 737-400 and 737-300. AEI also has active MD-80 and CRJ200 programs. As we were going to press, AEI received certification from the FAA for its CRJ200 P-to-F conversion, but the first unit had not yet been redelivered. Finally, Cascade Aerospace and Bombardier offer CRJ100 and CRJ200 package freighter (i.e. no large cargo door) conversion programs, but we have not included them in this survey.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, five companies launched a total of eight new passenger-to-freighter conversion programs:
- AEI went first, formally launching its 737-800 program at the Cargo Facts Asia event in Hong Kong in April 2014
- EFW (a joint venture of ST Aerospace and Airbus) launched programs for both the A320 and A321
- Bedek Aviation Group (the MRO and conversion arm of Israel Aerospace Industries) launched programs for both the 737-700 and 737-800
- Boeing launched a program for the 737-8000
The above four companies are still in the game with their six conversion programs, but missing from the list is PACAVI, a German-American company that launched P-to-F programs for the A320 and A321 in 2014. PACAVI said it had acquired an A320 and begun conversion work on it at the HAITEC facility in Germany, and in 2015 signed an agreement with Guangzhou-based MRO GAMECO under which GAMECO would perform the first A321 conversion. At the beginning 2016, PACAVI announced firm orders for six A320 conversions from Airline Management AS, and for two A321 conversions from Colt Cargo. But shortly after that announcement, the company ran into financial problems and now appears to have folded. What will happen to the engineering work so far done is unknown.
The remaining four players are all well-funded, and will all almost certainly convert significant numbers of passenger jets to freighter configuration. Bedek and AEI have both inducted the first units in their new programs, but it will still be at least a year, and likely a year-and-a-half, before they – or EFW or Boeing – receive certification and redeliver the first of the new freighters.
However, once the new programs are certified, the redeliveries will quickly ramp up. AEI already has fifty orders and thirty commitments/options for 737-800 conversions and Boeing is not far behind with thirty-six orders and twenty-four commitments. Add the fifteen orders and fifteen options Bedek has taken for its 737-800BDSF conversion plus three orders and one option for its 737-700BDSF, and there are a total of 104 orders and 70 options/commitments for the new 737NG programs. EFW has not yet announced any firm orders or commitments for its A320 Family programs, but in the long term, the A321 will certainly become a popular freighter.