Who’s who in freighter conversions part I: the next generation and beyond

Last year, the conversion industry finally pushed forward the next generation of conversions with the redelivery of the first freighter-converted next-generation (NG) narrowbody aircraft – Alaska Airlines’ 737-700BDSF converted by Bedek Aviation Group. Boeing aircraft weren’t the only airframe types to find new life as freighters among the next generation, either, as a year ago this month, DHL Express took redelivery of an A330-300P2F, following conversion by EFW (a 60/40 joint venture of ST Aerospace and Airbus).

Since the first narrowbody NG freighter-converted aircraft entered service in September 2017, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has taken redelivery of two additional -700BDSFs and is now operating all three -700BDSF conversions it had on order with Bedek. Redeliveries of freighter-converted 737-800s also began this year, the first of which was certified and redelivered by Boeing to launch customer GECAS in April.

Meanwhile, narrowbody conversion programs for Airbus aircraft could attain FAA and EASA STC certification beginning next year. During its third-quarter earnings call in November, Ohio-based Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) disclosed that its 321 Precision Conversions, LLC, JV with Precision Aircraft Solutions has already cut metal on the first aircraft for its A321-200 passenger-to-freighter conversion program. Currently, the program is still on track for certification of the first converted freighter by the end of next year, with production scheduled to begin in 2020. ATSG gave a conservative estimate for annual production capacity under the JV of ten to fifteen conversions per year.

Among widebody P-to-F conversion programs, the future is less certain. The 767-300 programs from Bedek and Boeing have seen steady demand – for example, Boeing received an order this year for three of the conversions from Chile-based LATAM Airlines, and the first has been in conversion at Taipei since July. The second and third aircraft are scheduled to enter conversion next year, with redelivery scheduled for 2019 and 2020, respectively. However, other widebody conversion programs (current and expected) have seen less demand, or feedstock values and conversion costs too high, to justify launching the program.

Late last year, launch customer DHL took redelivery of the first freighter-converted A330-300F from EFW, and this year, launch customer EgyptAir took redelivery of the first A330-200P2F converted aircraft, also from EFW. EgyptAir signed on with an order for two of the freighters in 2014 and has since confirmed an order for a third and an option for a fourth. Still, the programs are in early stages, and with a dearth of other options for converted widebody freighters outside of the 767Fs, the A330Fs may be in greater demand in the near future. One potential customer is Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings. Atlas’ CEO, Bill Flynn, has said in earnings calls this year that the conversion programs offer a “a growing opportunity and a good opportunity” for the air cargo industry, particularly given the ready availability of passenger aircraft for conversion.

The other potential conversion giant looming on the horizon is the 777. Bedek has been searching for a launch customer for a freighter-converted 777-200ER or 777-300ER for some time, but has said that, while feedstock is abundant for both types, prices don’t yet make sense. Bedek said prices will likely need to continue falling over the next four to six years before 777 conversions are economically feasible.

With the rise of the new comes the decline of the older airframe types, and at this year’s Cargo Facts Symposium, held in San Diego, representatives from major conversion houses acknowledged that the successful and popular 737-400 passenger-to-freighter conversions are in their “sunset years” due to feedstock that has rapidly grown scarce.

The charts on this page show the conversion landscape for currently active and formally launched passenger-to-freighter programs for jet aircraft. Not included, but also of note, are A320/A321 P-to-F programs from California-based C3 Aerospace (pronounced “C cubed”) and Washington-based Sine Draco. This year, Sine Draco selected Sierra Completions for engineering design of its A321-200SDF conversion program – however, C3 and Sine Draco have not yet announced launch customers for their respective programs. Once those details are available, we will publish them on our website.

Tomorrow, part II of “Who’s who in freighter conversions” will examine each of the major conversion houses, their conversions to-date, and expected upcoming redeliveries.

Those interested in learning more on the topic are invited to join us Cargo Facts EMEA, to be held 4-6 February at The Westin Grand Frankfurt. Register before 14 December to take advantage of early bird rates. To register or for more information, visit www.cargofactsemea.com.

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