Demand for turboprop freighters stalls

West Atlantic ATPF croppedAs package volumes declined in Europe and North America during the recession of 2008/2009, the big express companies cut off the expansion of their feeder freighter fleets. This ended several years of strong growth in the number of turboprop freighters in the 4-to-9 tonne payload category operated worldwide, and in 2008 the fleet actually shrank slightly, as carriers parked aircraft and cancelled conversion plans. Slow growth returned during 2009, and that trend continued through 2011. But for the past three years, growth has stalled and the current total of 182 units is up by just two from 180 in 2013, and three from the 179 in the fleet in 2012

Not only has the number of 4-to-9 tonne turboprop freighters remained almost constant in recent years, the composition of the fleet has also been fairly stable. There have been relatively few additions or retirements, and the trend of years past for operators to replace bulk-load (small-door) freighters with large-door units seems to have petered out.

The chart below shows the current distribution of six turboprop freighter types important in the makeup of the current and future fleet. There are also hundreds of smaller aircraft (Cessnas, Beechcraft, Metros, and others) in use as freighters, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Older types – such as Shorts 330/360s and F27s – continue to be applied in a freighter role, but their advancing age ensures that they will gradually be replaced by the newer types. One other older type enjoyed a brief renaissance several years ago when Canada-based Kelowna Flightcraft developed a conversion program that significantly upgrades the Convair 580 to a modern standard (including meeting Stage 3 noise limits). Cargo Facts believes that at least seven of the 9.8-tonne payload CV5800 freighters were modified.

The distribution of the turboprop freighter fleet is quite different from the distribution of the jet freighter fleet. Of the 183 units now in operation, 61.0% (111 units) are operated by European carriers, mostly under contract to integrators or national postal services. 28.0% (51 units) are operated in the US and Canada, almost all in feeder service for FedEx. Just over 10% of the fleet tracked in this chart operates in the rest of the world: 2.7% (5 units) in Mexico and Latin America, 4.4% (8 units) in the Asia Pacific, and 3.8% (7 units) in Africa. In the past we have said that as domestic and intra-regional demand grows in the Asia-Pacific express market, that region’s share of the total turboprop freighter fleet would gradually increase. In fact, the number of turboprops (of the types tracked in this survey) operated in the region has been relatively unchanged, and it now appears that demand has grown so rapidly in the Asian express market that carriers have chosen to acquire 737 and 757 freighters, rather than turboprops.

Analyzing the fleet in more detail by type, we find the following:

ATR 42F: A total of fifty-one ATR 42s have been converted to freighter configuration, all but one of which are in bulk-load configuration. Of the fifty-one, four have been written off, two have been scrapped, one is currently scheduled to be scrapped, and one is in storage. Forty-three are in service (although one of these is operated by the US Department of Justice, and is not shown), and in addition we include one ATR 42QC that is operated as a freighter by Swiftair. This total is down two from last year, with the following changes:

ATR 72F: Fifty-one ATR 72s have been converted to freighter configuration, and all but two of them are in service. We also include an ATR 72QC operated as a freighter by Calm Air, for a total of 50 active units. This is up two units from a year ago, with both Farnair and Mistral Air adding a newly converted ATR 72F. Mountain Air Cargo, which operates on behalf of FedEx in the US, will add a newly converted ATR 72F later this year.

ATPF: A total of 65 ATP aircraft were built, of which 45 have been converted to freighter configuration – twenty-four with large cargo doors, and twenty-one as bulk loaders. Of these, thirty-five are in service with two carriers. Indonesia-based Deraya Air Taxi operates two, while all the rest are operated by Sweden-based West Atlantic through its subsidiary carriers West Air Sweden and UK-based Atlantic Airlines. Of the remaining ten, two have been scrapped and two are earmarked for scrapping, and six (all previously operated by West Atlantic or its predecessors) are in long-term storage. The 35-unit total is up two over last year because Deraya Air Taxi returned its two units to service after parking them for a year.

Fokker50F: The number of Fokker 50Fs is unchanged from last year, at thirteen. One of the eleven F50Fs at Amapola Flyg in 2013 has since been acquired by Indonesia-based Asialink Cargo Express, but otherwise there were no changes. However, as we were going to press we learned that Amapola had firm-ordered two more F50F conversions.

Saab 340AF: Forty-one Saab 340As have now been converted to freighter configuration, and of these, thirty-six are in active service, along with two 340AQCs operated full time as freighters by Loganair. This is a total of 38, an increase of one over the previous year. Fifteen carriers operate the type, and the only changes on the 340A freighter scene over the past year were the addition of one unit by Hawaii-based Aloha Air Cargo, and the recent parking of Exec Direct Aviation’s single 340AF. We are still showing it in the chart because it is not known whether the parking is temporary or not.

Bombardier Q400PF: In 2009 Sweden-based Nord-Flyg ordered two Bombardier Q400s converted to bulk-load freighter configuration, but the carrier ceased operation in early 2010 after taking only the first unit. The freighter then went to West Atlantic, but in early 2012 was acquired by Kenyan carrier Blue Bird Aviation, which operated a twelve-unit turboprop passenger fleet, including four Dash 8 Q400s. Blue Bird added a second Q400F in 2012 and a third last year. Although no further Q400 freighter orders have been announced, the market outlook for this type, like that for the Fokker50, is positive, particularly in light of the limited supply of feedstock for further conversion of the competing BAe ATP model.

On the subject of Bombardier’s Dash 8 series, we note that Canadian carrier Air Inuit developed a conversion program for the Q300, and has had it certified by the Canadian aviation authorities. Since then the carrier has converted two of the type and brought them into service. Air Inuit has a significant cargo focus, operating two 737-200 combis and an HS 748 in freighter configuration in addition to the two Q300Fs. Air Inuit says its Q300 freighters have a payload of just over 6 tonnes, which would make it a competitor to the ATR 42 and Fokker50, but since it is unlikely that the type will become popular with other carriers, we have not included it in the chart.

Just as there has been little change in the turboprop freighter fleet, there has also been little change in the carriers that operate that fleet. Two carriers, Deraya Air Taxi and Mistral Air are back after one and two year’s absence, respectively, and the only really new carrier is Asialink Cargo Airlines. Asialink is a joint venture between Indonesia-based PT Kaltimex Lestari Makmur and Singapore’s Asialink Cargo Express. The carrier began operation with two F27Fs, and last year added an F50F (formerly operated by Amapola). No carriers that operated turboprop freighters in the 4-to-9 tonne range last year are missing this year.

Of course, the space between the largest of the turboprops and jet freighters like the 737-300F/-400F is not a vacuum. Over twenty years ago, BAE launched a conversion program for its small quad-jet BAe 146. Some 30 of the type were converted as new-builds in the 1980s, and 19 are still in service today, mostly in TNT’s European fleet. BAE revived the BAe 146 Quiet Trader program in 2007, but met with little interest. The BAe 146QT offers a payload of 10.6 tonnes in its -200 variant and 12.1 tonnes in the -300 variant. Russia’s Sukhoi also announced in 2007 that it intended to develop a 15-tonne-payload freighter version of its Superjet100, but has been silent on the subject since. In an age of high fuel prices, the aging, four-engine BAe 146 is a tough sell, and a new-build Superjet100 (or any other new-build regional jet freighter), whatever its specifications, will always be too expensive to compete. But to the surprise of many observers, a freighter-converted CRJ200 looks to have gained momentum after a slow start. In 2007 Cascade Aerospace cooperated with Bombardier to develop a small-door conversion program for the CRJ200 and CRJ100. In the seven years since only five have been delivered (three 200s to West Atlantic and two 100s to Mexico-based Estafeta). However, in 2013 Aeronautical Engineers Inc, also working with the manufacturer, began developing a large-door CRJ200 P-to-F program, and has already booked over twenty firm orders.

Looking ahead, it seems unlikely that demand for these large turboprop freighters will increase significantly in the near future. We expect that growing demand for express feeder service in Asia will be met by narrowbody jet freighters, while the fleets in the rest of the world, particularly Europe and North America will remain stable.

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