Back in 2018, as the Amazon Air 767 freighter fleet began to take shape, FedEx Express, the world’s largest freighter operator, was asked what would give its network a long-term edge against rising competition from the e-tailer. David Cunningham, then president and CEO of FedEx’s express business, said that in addition to its skilled workforce and global infrastructure, its diversified fleet, which included Cessna and ATR turboprop aircraft, gave its network unparalleled service delivery capabilities.
Jumping ahead to present day, Amazon is preparing to add turboprops to its U.S. domestic air operation. In parallel, FedEx is in the process of upgrading its regional freighter fleet to include new-build production freighters.
Starting earlier this summer, a stream of previously parked ATR 72Fs began making their way from Europe across the Atlantic. After spending some time at the Empire Airlines MRO facility in Coeur D’Alene (COE), one by one these aircraft arrived in Fort Lauderdale (FLL), the base of Silver Airways.
But none of these aircraft will fly in Silver’s pink livery. Instead, the ATR 72s are being leased by Amazon, which has selected the Florida-based airline as its first CMI partner for regional freighter operations.
As Cargo Facts reported in July, Silver has been recruiting personnel for its cargo business since earlier this year and had targeted a September launch, with a base at Fort Worth Alliance Airport (AFW).
The first aircraft (853, ex-Aurigny Air Services), which does not have a large cargo door, received an Amazon registration in early July and was ferried from FLL to AFW in October but has yet to begin flying. So far, four other ATR 72-500F bulk freighters have landed at FLL (727, ex-Air Corsica; 736, ex-Air Caraibes; 714, ex-Air New Zealand; and 682, ex-Voepass), while Amazon has reserved at least three more registrations in the same range.
Although the ATR freighters have yet to shuttle parcels for Amazon, that will change this quarter. In an Oct. 21 tweet, Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, referred to the turboprops as “new hardware” being brought on for this year’s holiday peak. [Note: units 853, 727 and 714 have since entered service with Silver.]
Returning to the global in-service regional freighter fleet, as of the end of October, Cargo Facts recorded 239 active freighters for aircraft with payloads of 3.8 to 8.8 tonnes, spread over fifty operators. Of the in-service fleet, almost half of these are ATR freighters, mostly in bulk configuration without a large cargo door. Unlike the jet freighter fleet, this figure is nearly flat compared to our tally of 241 units. However, the composition and size of the fleet are both expected to change over the next year as Amazon launches its operation, and as more factory-built ATR 72-600Fs begin to enter commercial service.
|Operator||ATR 72-600F||ATR 72F LCD||ATR 72F Bulk||ATR 42F||ATPF||Fokker 50F||Q400F||Q100F/Q300F||CRJ100F/CRJ200F||Saab 340F||EMB120F||TOTAL|
|ASL Airlines Ireland||1||0||5||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|ASL Airlines UK||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|DHL de Guatemala||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Fleet Air International||0||1||1||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|Freight Runners Express||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6||6|
|Gulf & Caribbean Cargo||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||3||0||0||4|
|Morningstar Air Express||0||0||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|Mountain Air Cargo||0||0||9||8||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||17|
|North Star Air||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Poste Air Cargo||0||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|Ryan Air Alaska||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||2|
|Solenta Aviation Côte d'Ivoire||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Solenta Aviation Gabon||0||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|Trans Am Aero Express del Ecuador||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|West Atlantic Sweden||0||0||0||0||11||0||0||0||2||0||0||13|
|Zimex Aviation Austria||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|∑ = 1||∑ = 12||∑ = 74||∑ = 31||∑ = 11||∑ = 6||∑ = 1||∑ = 4||∑ = 20||∑ = 44||∑ = 35||∑ = 239|
Factory freighters for FedEx
Up until now, ATR has delivered four ATR 72-600Fs to FedEx, its sole customer for the program, but has hinted that a second customer may be announced soon. FedEx has sent three of the aircraft to the United States and one to Europe.
The only unit in service (1653) so far is operated by ASL Airlines Ireland.
Of the three aircraft in the U.S., one (1680) is in Spokane (GEG), and two (1681 and 1686) are at Oakland County International Airport (PTK) near Pontiac, Mich. Idaho-based Empire Airlines has been identified as a future ATR 72-600F operator for FedEx, but other operators will be added to the mix.
North Carolina-based Mountain Air Cargo also plans to commence ATR 72-600F operations, but it’s not clear when. On Oct. 3, the carrier petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation to obtain permission to provide non-scheduled all-cargo transportation under FAA part 121 guidelines, and proposed, “to add an ATR-600F to its part 121 fleet.”
PTK happens to be the base of cargo ACMI and charter operator IFL Group, which operates one ATR-42F on a CMI basis for FedEx and CRJ regional freighters. The group declined to comment on its fleet or operational plans.
Opting for conversions
As the factory-built ATR 72-600F begins to land at airports across the globe, freighter-converted ATRs continue to join the fleet in both large cargo door and bulk configurations.
France-based engineering firm Aeroconseil, part of the AKKA group, confirmed to Cargo Facts that it converted seven ATRs to bulk load configuration between October 2020 and October 2021, and has lifted its conversion forecast for next year. The company told Cargo Facts it expects to convert more than eight aircraft over the next twelve months, with around four being completed by the end of 2021.
The freighter-converted ATR 72 fleet equipped with a large cargo door and capable of carrying containers is in flux. In October 2020, Hawaiian Airlines hit the pause button on its interisland operation, which at the time had three ATR 72-200Fs (227, ex-Solenta Aviation; 423, ex-First Air; and 432, ex-First Air) in active service, and a fourth on the way. At the start of 2021, Hawaiian decided to end the operation and sent the three active units to COE in June and July to join the one already parked there (389, ex-ASL Airlines Ireland).
In September, Canada-based North Star Air, which operates three ATR 72-500Fs in bulk configuration, started the process of converting a fourth ATR 72-500F (978, ex-Virgin Australia) to large cargo door configuration. The 2011-vintage aircraft was inducted for conversion at the Springer Aerospace facility at Bar River (YEB).
As factory-built and converted ATR 72Fs enter the mix, the smaller ATR 42F fleet is on the decline. In April, ASL Airlines removed from service the last of what were five ATR 42Fs that it had been operating for FedEx. While some of these aircraft have found their way to other carriers, such as unit 273, which was exported to Canada-based Air North, others such as units 282 and 327 have been donated by FedEx to non-commercial entities. While FedEx has erased the aircraft type from its European operation, nineteen units are still in service in the U.S. operated by Empire Airlines, Mountain Air Cargo and Gulf & Caribbean Cargo, while Morningstar Air Express operates four units in Canada.
Not all ATR
Nearly on par with the ATR 42 conversion, the six-tonne Dash 8-300 large cargo door conversion program being developed by Collins Aerospace and Air Inuit is nearing completion, according to a Nov. 5 social media post from Air Inuit highlighting the converted freighter.
At the smaller end of the spectrum, two 4.5-tonne Dash 8-100 package freighters converted by Voyageur Aviation entered service for Purolator earlier this year, and now fly between the U.S. and Canada.
Also of note is the 3.8-tonne Saab 340, which is seeing a resurgence in freighter conversion activity. Sweden’s Taby Air Maintenance (TAM) expects to redeliver a record of ten Saab 340 freighters this year, with carriers including Legends Airways and others adding the type or growing their existing fleet.
While a handful of turboprops represent a new direction for Amazon, many more aircraft would be needed to mirror the feeder operations of FedEx. As of Aug. 31, FedEx’s ATR fleet numbered twenty ATR 72Fs and nineteen ATR 42Fs. Additionally, some 235 Cessna 208Bs operate in the integrator’s network.
This story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Cargo Facts.