SAN DIEGO – GECAS and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) announced the joint launch of a 777-300ER passenger-to-freighter conversion program yesterday, just as delegates began arriving here for Cargo Facts Symposium 2019.
More than just a customer for the program, along with IAI, GECAS is co-funding the development of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the 777-300ERSF, which the pair playfully refer to as “The Big Twin” – a reference to the aircraft’s twin engines, and its juxtaposition with the 777 production freighter based on the shorter 777-200 airframe. With a portfolio of more than thirty-five 777-300ERs, GECAS is also providing the conformity aircraft as part of its launch order for up to thirty 777-300ERSF conversions, including 15 firm and 15 options. IAI, meanwhile, will handle engineering aspects of the program.
Alignment with IAI
Due to the expense associated with developing a conversion STC for the 777, Boeing and IAI have long been considered as the most likely companies to launch a program for the 777 platform. Both companies have previous experience with 747-400 conversions, and for nearly a decade have been evaluating the launch of a conversion program for the 777. The debate has centered around not only whether a program would ever be launched, but also which variant – the -200ER or the -300ER – would offer the most potential as a conversion.
GECAS has been evaluating 777 conversions for about three years now, Richard Greener, SVP and manager, GECAS Cargo Aircraft Group, told Cargo Facts. Although the lessor had initially approached both Boeing and IAI to discuss opportunities for a 777 program, IAI was ultimately closer to pulling the trigger on the program’s launch – touting launch as being just weeks away since October 2017 – but required a significant launch order, or in GECAS’ case, an investor.
Unlike the estimated 70 freighter conversions IAI has redelivered to customer GECAS over the past two decades, GECAS is a co-investor in the 777-300ERSF program. “This is a big departure for us,” said Greener, referring to the 50/50 investment split between IAI and GECAS. Whereas GECAS has been a launch customer and provided prototype aircraft for conversions in the past, it has never before played such an active role in supporting the launch of a program.
E-commerce demands volume
The choice of moving forward with the -300ER rather than the -200ER is based on the -300ER’s expected compatibility with 777F production freighters, and the projected availability of feedstock of an age suitable for conversion. Whereas the 777 production freighter and the 777-200ER share the same fuselage, the 777-300ER is longer than the -200 by about ten meters, which equates to 25% more volumetric space compared to the production freighter, according to GECAS. The GE90 is also the only engine option available for the aircraft, and GECAS has enlisted its GE Aviation affiliate to provide maintenance support for the powerplants.
That’s not to say GECAS expects the 777-300ERSF to compete directly with the full-freighter variant. Whereas the density profile of general cargo sits between 9-10 pounds per cubic foot, express and e-commerce densities are lower, in the range of 6-8.5 pounds per cubic foot, according to Greener. With ten extra positions compared to the 777F, “We see that the 777-300ERSF is an e-commerce and express-type operator’s aircraft because it optimizes performance at those densities.”
As for a conversion based on the 777-200ER, with an in-service fleet currently averaging 14 years, the ideal window to launch a program may have already passed. “Fast forward four years in time, and the average age is going to be 18 years old.” For this size airframe, the age is beyond what GECAS would deem worthy of building a conversion program around. According to Cargo Facts Consulting (CFC), at present there are about 241 777-200ERs aged 16-20 years old. By 2024, the number of 777-200ERs in this age range falls to about 100.
As for the 777-300ER – by far the more popular option among passenger operators – feedstock of varying age profiles will be plentiful by 2023. By that time, there will be 122 aircraft aged 16-20 years and a similar number aged 11-15, according to CFC estimates. Exactly what constitutes a suitable age for converting a 777-300ER is not yet defined, but Greener expects aircraft could be converted at younger age compared to the typical freighters redelivered post-conversion aged 15-20 years.
A replacement for freighter-converted 747-400s?
Admitting that large integrators might not jump to add freighter-converted 777s to their own fleets, at least initially, Greener sees potential in the ACMI operators that operate large widebodies on behalf of integrators, particularly 747-400BCF operators. Referring to the 747-400BCF, “This is a market where we believe the utilization and the aging of the fleet makes the 777-300ERSF a good replacement for this aircraft,” Greener continued. The 777-300ERSF boasts multiple configuration options, with up to 47 pallet positions across the main and lower decks.
IAI will convert the first 777-300ER, a GECAS owned ex-Emirates aircraft, at its Tel Aviv (TLV) facility and expects program certification by 2023. Additional conversion lines may be added elsewhere as needed, following successful completion of a prototype aircraft. Based on current expectations for the program, GECAS expects to take redelivery of the 15 units sometime between the fourth quarter of 2022 and 2025.