The mid-sized widebody freighter conversions market is gaining momentum. Keith Mwanalushi looks at how the A330 and B767 are faring.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said despite indicators pointing to air cargo having passed a cyclical growth peak, globally demand remains strong.
IATA reports 2017 was the strongest year for air cargo since 2010. The uptick in freight growth coincides with a freighter conversions market that is ramping up accordingly to meet this surge in demand.
Boeing and Airbus forecast robust freighter fleet additions for both growth and replacement in the next 20 years.
Boeing forecasts, in their current market outlook 2017-36, that the freighter market will require 2,480 additional freighters (1,560 conversions and 920 new) with Airbus predicting in their global market forecast 2017-36 that an additional 1,950 freighters (1,218 conversions and 732 new) will be needed.
The A330 conversion programme is finally underway. DHL Express has become the first operator to take delivery of the A330-300 Passenger-to-Freighter (P2F) converted aircraft from Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW).
DHL Express has firm orders for eight A330-300P2F units in total, with additional options to receive another 10. The A330P2F conversion programme, launched in 2012, is a collaboration with ST Aerospace.
“The idea to have an A330 conversion goes back to 2004 but it was far too early to do development, but even back then we knew that this would be the natural follow up to the A300-600F which was a successful aircraft,” declares Wolfgang Schmid, vice president sales and marketing at EFW.
He says the A300-600 programme was so successful that it run out of feedstock. “We converted everything we could get.”
Having said that, Schmid admits it took a bit of time to get the A330 conversion programme running but he feels that today is the perfect time for conversions due to its popularity in the passenger market, as well as having the right age and values to make a good converted freighter. “It would have been difficult a couple of years ago,” he states.
The A330 has become much more successful on the passenger market than ever expected, even by Airbus, he says. The A330P2F programme has two variants – the A330-200P2F and the larger A330-300P2F.
The latter is ideal for serving the international express B2B and e-commerce cargo markets, which typically have a higher volume and lower density.
The aircraft can carry up to 61 metric tonnes over 3,650 nautical miles, whilst offering 20-25 per cent more cargo volume and lower cost-per-tonne than other available freighter aircraft types with a similar range, according to EFW.
Schmid remarks that limited payload is now not a disadvantage: “Payload is not the driver for freighter aircraft anymore – its volume, volume and volume! The A330s are the best volumetric freighters you can think of, the -300 is endless and makes a perfect parcel freighter.”
Schmid foresees steady demand for the conversions and EFW is in talks with several prospective operators.
“We are talking to all of them,” he says. “Of course, we are talking to all the big guys but it’s not only the likes of FedEx or UPS, it’s also the Amazon’s next day delivery services needs. They are growing very fast now, and this is the perfect platform for serving this new demand.”
Striking a balance between reasonable availability of feedstock and market demand has been crucial for the programme and Schmid believes the timing is just right.
“In the short term I see a very bright future for us,” he reckons. “My only concern right now is that we find enough slots evenly to satisfy the market.”
EFW is still in the ramp-up phase for A330 conversions. The first aircraft to DHL was delivered last year and is operating. A second aircraft was due for delivery at the time of this writing. Schmid says it will take at least another year to have the industrial setup in place to do the conversions at higher numbers to satisfy the market.
ST Aerospace, as the programme and technical lead for the engineering development phase, is responsible for applying for the STCs from EASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Airbus contributes to the programme with OEM data and certification support, while EFW leads the industrialisation phase and marketing for the freighter conversion programme.
During the conversion, Schmid says everything is removed from the passenger plane.
“We replace the whole floor structure, everything is out and of course the aircraft will be rewired as well. We remove all the wiring that is passenger related and the air conditioning is repurposed from the old system. The windows are plugged obviously because you want to reduce maintenance efforts. In the cockpit Airbus does some modification for us for the flight warning computers because you now have different doors, so the cockpit computers are modified as well but this is mainly software,” Schmid explains.
For the rest of the year, EFW projects around five deliveries, including the -200 conversion which will receive certification in June Schmid then compares the A330 to the competing 767. “I don’t want to say the 767 is bad, it’s a good aircraft but it’s a 40-year-old type and the A330 by definition is a next-generation aircraft,” he points out.
In Schmid’s opinion, he says, “one major advantage in comparison with the 767 is that we have a wider fuselage with the Airbus widebodies, that enables the transport of 96-inch containers side-by-side on the upper deck and the standard LD3 containers in the belly which are good features.”
He explains that the LD2 containers which are on the 767 are not as common as the more popular LD3s. He further states this gives the A330 some additional volume, but it is not part of the conversion but a feature of the A330 itself. Further, a new container type, 96’ x 125’ AMV is able to uplift volume by 10 per cent on each position.
Boeings  can only transport 88-inch containers side by side,” Schmid compares.
As for the A340, Schmid is tempted by the cheap acquisition costs but having said that, none of the operators, the big ones at least, seem ready to accept a four-engine aircraft into their freighter fleet these days.
It’s fair to say the 767 continues to be a popular candidate for conversion. Last year Bedek Aviation Group announced that P2F conversions for the 767-300s would begin in Mexico in collaboration with Mexicana MRO.
“The first converted 767-300BDSF in Mexico was delivered to the customer in late November 2017 and the second aircraft is now under conversion,” reports Noam Sharoni, Director for Boeing 767 Conversions at Bedek.
In parallel Bedek has five 767-300BDSF conversion lines operational at Bedek in Tel Aviv.
Prior to choosing Mexico and Mexicana MRO as a partner, Sharoni explains that a thorough analysis of other MRO facilities in America was conducted, looking for a capable site with a large quantity of licenced and experienced mechanics, hangar space and good infrastructures, and the availability to join the programme within a very short time.
“Mexicana MRO is very familiar with the 767 aircraft, and their teams were sent to Bedek in Tel Aviv to learn the conversion work and then perform the actual work in Mexico as Bedek’s subcontractor” Sharoni states.
Bedek has wide experience with P2F conversions and has been doing so for over 35 years. To date, the company has made more than 105 conversions of the 767 family, focusing now on the 767-300BDSF where more than 45 aircraft have been delivered. “Most of the recent aircraft converted were provided to the express networks in North America, but the demand is becoming stronger each day from the Chinese market and the region around it.”
Much like the A330 Sharoni explains that Bedek’s conversion is giving new life to a mature aircraft by replacing all of the floor structures and replacing the wiring, adding a new air conditioning system, a new one-minute smoke detection system and lightweight interior coverage. These are just some of the modifications being done.
Recently, Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) announced a new lease agreement with Air Incheon for one Boeing 767-300 converted freighter and an option for a second, both for 2018 delivery.
The company said that its ATSG West Leasing Limited subsidiary in Ireland has committed to lease one converted Boeing 767-300 freighter to Air Incheon of South Korea for a multi-year term anticipated to commence on 31 March 2018.
ATSG West Leasing has also granted Air Incheon an option to lease a second 767-300 freighter for delivery later in 2018.