Cargo Facts 2018: Which engine will drive the narrowbody conversion market?

Will the A321 P2F be a viable competitor to converted 757Fs?

SAN DIEGO – Major conversion houses agreed that, more than shortages in aircraft feedstock, the difficulty in sourcing aircraft engines at reasonable prices for passenger-to-freighter conversions will more significantly limit the number of conversions during the next few years, speakers at today’s Cargo Facts Symposium said.

Responding to a question on how many conversions available 757-200 feedstock can support, Peter Koster, Business Development Director at Vallair, said that the main limiter for 757 conversions is engine availability, more than suitable passenger aircraft for conversion.

This issue isn’t limited strictly to 757s, or even to Boeing conversions. Robert Convey, Senior Vice President Sales and Marketing for Aeronautical Engineers, Inc. (AEI), noted similar issues with sourcing engines for AEI’s CRJ 200 conversions, which he said can be “impossible” to find, to the extent that it is preventing some potential customers from ordering conversions. Convey said he expects finding engines at reasonable prices will continue to be a challenge going forward.

That challenge could be another potential headwind for A321 P2F conversions, which already face something of an uphill battle breaking into a narrowbody freighter market traditionally dominated by Boeing. Koster noted that the A321 conversions face the same difficulty in sourcing engines at competitive prices, which Gary Warner, President of Precision Aircraft Solutions and 321 Precision Conversions, cautioned has killed conversion programs in the past.

“Looking at past programs that haven’t done particularly well over time, it’s because the engines just became too expensive,” he said.

While the panelists were in agreement that engine availability is restricting the overall number of conversions, they were less aligned on whether the A321F will be a solid competitor to the 757F. Wolfgang Schmid, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Airbus Freighter Conversions with EFW, noted that the A321F is particularly attractive in terms of its greater capacity for shipping containerized cargo, thanks to the ability to load containerized cargo into the lower deck, compared to the 757F’s requirement for bulk loading of the lower deck.

While a lively discussion ensued over the engineering specifications of the A321F – particularly regarding the aircraft’s skin thickness and related durability in operating in harsh environments – an undeniable obstacle in adopting an A321F platform for current operators is the dominant presence of Boeing freighters in the narrowbody market. In addition to the fact that many operators do not currently have an Airbus platform from which to source pilots, airports often lack the infrastructure to support A321F operations.

However, as panelists pointed out, those problems are not insurmountable. Koster said he expects infrastructure on the ground to adapt with carrier requirements, and that, while “there’s a large number of Boeing operators in the business, we’ll see new operators entering the game wanting to take advantage of the A321.”

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