The Airbus A321 has become a strong contender for freighter operations.

    Next year, Qantas will be the first airline in the world to operate the A321 as a freighter aircraft.

    Preparations for the conversion from passenger to freighter have been ongoing for some years. In February 2018 – Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), finally announced that it had secured a launch contract from Vallair for its A321 passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion solution.

    Volga Dnepr

    Vallair saw huge potential in the A321 P2F a while ago not only as a replacement for the Boeing 757F, but as a key tool for the cargo industry to achieve the projected growth rate of the air freight market in general – in particular driven by express services and e-commerce.

    Vallair is the launch customer for the A321 P2F signing agreements with two conversion specialists Precision Aircraft Solutions and EFW.

    Alistair Dibisceglia, the chief leasing and trading officer at Vallair informs Airline Cargo Management that both are progressing well. “They are both on track to deliver next year,” he says. “The new cargo door is installed on both prototypes. This is one of the most important milestones of the programme and we are excited because we can see this ‘new’ aircraft taking shape while making history.”

    The A321 is the first derivative of the baseline A320, it has a stretched fuselage and entered service in 1994 with Lufthansa, around six years after the original A320. Since then the A321 has grown in popularity on the passenger market and with the new more advanced fuel-efficient variants like the Neo coming along, these aircraft are opening new opportunities for airlines, chiefly on long haul missions.

    Australia bound

    On the cargo side, clearly there is demand for that type of capacity. In August, Vallair announced that it had signed an LOI to lease the first A321 P2F aircraft conversion to Qantas.

    This A321 P2F MSN835 [with conversion being done by ST Aerospace in Singapore] is intended to be operated by Qantas Freight on behalf of its customer – Australia Post.

    To service the recently announced strategic alliance between Qantas and Australia Post, the A321 P2F will add significantly more capacity – or an additional nine tonnes – compared to the existing fleet.

    Aircraft repossesions in Europe
    European repossesions could add to feedstock levels

    The first unit leased from Vallair is due to be delivered in 2020. Qantas Freight decided to go with the A321 P2Fs as they provide an increase of 45 per cent capacity by weight and 70 per cent by payload in comparison with their existing 737-300 freighters. The A321 P2Fs are fully containerised, have certification to Chapter 4 noise compliance and are more fuel efficient, according to Qantas Freight.

    Australia Post and Qantas recently agreed to an expanded domestic and international air freight agreement to support the growing demand for parcels. The seven-year agreement valued at over $1 billion will give Australia Post customers access to Qantas Freight’s dedicated freighter aircraft and priority access to the cargo space on up to 1,500 Qantas and Jetstar passenger flights.

    Up to three A321 P2Fs will be added to the freighter network used for Australia Post.

    When the agreement was announced in August, Christine Holgate, CEO and managing director, Australia Post, said the strategic alliance with Qantas meant Australia Post and its customers could continue to power the e-commerce engine that’s driving Australian trade domestically and internationally.

    “It also means we can build flexibility into the air freight network to manage increased volumes and demand in the lead-up to Christmas. Last year we flew more than 400 tonnes of mail on our busiest night, and more than 40 million parcels during December; this year, we expect to exceed both those targets, Holgate stated.

    Qantas Group CEO, Alan Joyce, said the seven-year agreement was a vote of confidence in the future growth in e-commerce and would support the rising demand for next-day delivery. He said: “Consumer preferences and expectations are rapidly changing and together with Australia Post we’re responding by growing our dedicated freighter fleet to provide a better experience for consumers and businesses.”

    In terms of growing the fleet further and the appeal of the A321 in the lease market, Qantas Freight tells this publication that they are constantly reviewing the freighter fleet and considering options for future growth in order to better meet the changing needs of customers.

    Former Thomas Cook A321
    Former Thomas Cook A321s could be candidates for conversion

    For the lease market per say, Dibisceglia feels there is plenty of attention and increasing demand for Vallair’s A321 P2F product and they are signing with various airlines and freight specialists all over the world.

    Besides the “big four” Fedex, DHL, Amazon, UPS, he reckons the A321 P2F will also help airlines and freight carriers entering the market with the capabilities the aircraft can provide, especially when it comes to new routes and network flexibility. “Qantas has conferred credibility by being our first airline customer and we believe that they have chosen the aircraft because of its ability to open new routes, deliver maximum flexibility and more cargo capacity.”

    Cargo handling

    There are also some advances in belly-freight loading and cargo handling systems lately. In September TELAIR International announced, what it calls “the world’s first” cargo loading system, allowing the lower deck of a narrow-body aircraft to be quickly converted for different cargo requirements. The new system consists of pre-assembled floor modules that are easily reconfigured within a few hours to accommodate full bulk or containerised cargo loading– depending on the type of freight that needs to be loaded and transported.

    The modular cargo loading system has been developed as a post-delivery modification or retrofit conversion for the A320 family of aircraft platforms.  System certification is scheduled for the first quarter of 2020 – Lufthansa Group has ordered more than 100 systems, to be installed on new A320/A321neos.

    TELAIR International says individual operators, airline groups and lessors contacted TELAIR, asking for a solution to convert A320 family aircraft during the aircraft life from bulk loading operation to containerised operation within a short conversion time span, preferably even overnight.

    “This feature does not exist today, since the aircraft are built to a specific configuration during original production (bulk or containerised lower deck cargo system) and then will usually remain in that configuration throughout the entire life span of the aircraft since performing a retrofit and service bulletin to convert from one configuration to another is extremely costly and very time consuming,” the company notes.

    Qantas Freight A321 P2F
    Qantas Freight will take delivery of the first A321 P2F from Vallair

    TELAIR have cited several reasons for this modification. Firstly, leasing companies moving aircraft from lessor A to lessor B for a second life, whereby one lessor may already operate a fleet of containerised aircraft and therefore is in need of a containerised version and vice versa to keep commonality.

    “If a leasing company can only provide an aircraft with the one set-up in the lower deck than it is more difficult for the leasing company to place the respective aircraft in the market again. With the modular cargo loading system, the aircraft can be converted overnight to the required configuration,” TELAIR spokesperson states.

    Also, airline groups often have different subsidiaries serving certain markets, for example business-routes and leisure markets. There carriers may want to move aircraft within the group between the individual subsidiaries.

    In addition, TELLAIR observe that A320/A321 conversion freighter aircraft very often enter the conversion programme in lower deck bulk-loading configuration. For the A320/A321 programme TELAIR state the preferred solution is an “all containerised aircraft” in the main and lower deck.

    They also say the modular cargo loading system allows to easily and quickly reconfigure such lower cargo holds during the main deck freighter conversion programme.

    According to TELAIR, for the A321 conversion freighters, the modular cargo loading system can also offer the option of two additional ULD positions in the lower holds compared to the standard OEM passenger aircraft configuration.

    In terms of the retrofit and modification process for operators of current A321ceo’s, TELAIR say during the initial installation of the modular cargo loading system (independent if starting from a containerised version or a bulk version), the original installation needs to be removed (for example the bulk floor panels).

    After that, certain minor provision installations need to take place and then the modular cargo loading system can be installed.

    For system certification, the system will be certified via STC by TELAIR under FAA rules and will be extended to EASA via the bilateral agreement between the US and Germany. TELAIR says extension to other authorities in China and Japan, for instance can be offered on a need be basis.

    Candidate for conversion 

    Back at Vallair, they are navigating through any challenges of conversion. Dibisceglia reports that thus far, although the project is going through the ‘learning-curve’ phase, the complex process has been relatively uneventful – “The certification phase is coming up and we are excited about that.”

    Vallair has purchased several A321s and placed them on lease agreements with various operators to expand the cargo conversion portfolio. These aircraft will no doubt ultimately serve as ongoing feedstock for the company’s P2F cargo conversion programme.

    Following the collapse of UK travel company Thomas Cook, the repossession of its fleet is firmly underway. In the UK, Thomas Cook Airlines operated 27 A321-200s and considering the type’s ongoing popularity in the passenger market there is no doubt they will be quickly absorbed with passenger carriers but Dibisceglia confirms that former Thomas Cook aircraft have been offered to Vallair and that could be an avenue for future feedstock.

    “While consolidation is still occurring, we see opportunities presenting themselves constantly. Feedstock is still a concern given the high demand, but we believe that in the following years good opportunities will surface.”