ATR delivered its first production freighter aircraft to launch customer FedEx in December. In this interview with Airline Cargo Management, head of leasing, freighter and asset management Guillaume Huertas discusses the ATR 72-600F and other topics.
[This feature first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Airline Cargo Management, which you can read in full here.]
Why is it the right time to launch a purpose-built regional freighter?
When we launched the programme with FedEx, there was already a clear understanding that certain features required by logistics companies could only be achieved with a purpose-built aircraft. E-commerce has been booming and it has heralded an age where integrators must get as close as possible to the delivery point, as quickly as possible. This is where regional freighters excel, as they reach smaller airports, remote areas and isolated communities in a cost-efficient way.
Somewhat inescapably, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how important regional connectivity is to communities and economies all over the world. Our aircraft played key roles in delivering medical supplies and repatriations; we are now involved in vaccine delivery. We are also sure that our aircraft have a key role to play in the economic recovery linking communities and economies as we gradually return to normal.
What factors are driving change in the regional cargo market?
Cargo capacity has fallen 25 per cent in recent months due to the grounding of passenger aircraft and therefore the reduction of belly freight capacity. In parallel, we have seen an increase in demand.
ATR proposes three solutions to this increased need for more cargo capacity: a conversion of our aircraft from passenger to freighters; a quick and temporary conversion kit that can absorb extra demand; and a purpose-built freighter. With about 130 full freighter ATRs in operation, representing a third of the regional cargo market, ATRs are already the preferred aircraft for cargo conversions, due to the superior efficiency of our aircraft compared with other currently available turboprops.
What are the main benefits of the ATR 72-600F?
This is an aircraft that is truly born to be a freighter, so it is packed full of innovations that will make a big difference to cargo operators: first and foremost, the very large cargo door – which is nearly three metres wide – that can accommodate standard LD3 containers and pallets; an upper hinged back door to optimise loading; and a clean, windowless, fuselage for easier maintenance. It also features a reinforced floor, to carry heavier items.
Another example is the improvements in lighting. With most cargo operations happening at night we increased the interior and exterior lighting to over 90 lux, which will make the lives of the ground handlers easier and more comfortable. The ATR 72-600F’s modern glass cockpit will also be very attractive to operators as it features the very latest avionics, which can be upgraded, remaining at the cutting-edge when further innovations become available.
How important were environmental and sustainability considerations in creating the aircraft?
Climate change remains an imminent threat and sustainability has never been more important. Governments, airlines, companies, integrators and the public are going to be increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of the aviation industry and it is likely that the cargo industry will be no different. It is not difficult to imagine a world where consumers make purchasing choices based on the carbon footprint of the delivery amongst other factors.
We are fortunate in the regard that our aircraft is already an eco-responsible benchmark in the aviation industry. ATR aircraft burn 40 per cent less fuel and therefore emit 40 per cent less CO² than similarly sized regional jets. We also enjoy a significant fuel burn advantage over competing turboprops. Right from the start, there is a sustainability advantage built into the new freighter’s DNA.
What was the significance of the first delivery to FedEx Express?
It was very important. We are very proud that despite the global pandemic we were able to deliver the first ATR 72-600F to a global leader like FedEx Express. When we consider the context of the year, this milestone of seeing our aircraft family get a little bigger was something positive for everyone involved with the company.
Delivering to the largest express transportation company in the world shows the kind of impact that this aircraft will have in the regional freighter market. FedEx Express demand the highest quality, and their business plan is designed to ensure their responsiveness to their customers keeps them at the top of the market. The fact they have made the ATR 72-600F an important part of their fleet modernisation plan is a massive validation for this first ever purpose-built ATR freighter.
What is the market potential for the programme?
Globally, we see a potential market for about 460 turboprop freighters over the next 20 years. ATR is already the leader in the regional cargo segment with about 130 converted ATR aircraft representing about a third of the market. The annual conversion rate for second-hand ATR aircraft has steadily increased from 10 up to around 15.
Demand is strong and with the ATR 72-600F, we see potential for 100 aircraft over the next 20 years, in addition to the 30 FedEx has already ordered. With a total market of 460 aircraft, we expect roughly a third to be new builds. Our rationale shows there are opportunities in developing markets where there are currently few freighters, with the continuing growth of e-commerce and with the importance of last mile delivery.
In which markets do you see the most potential currently?
We see the high potential markets as being in North America, Europe and certain parts of Asia, where our aircraft are particularly well adapted to the geography and where e-commerce is already booming. They will have the most need for the quickest possible delivery times. However, it is worth noting that the freighter could also generate interest in developing countries and emerging economies, such as in South America, Africa and other parts of Asia, where it is difficult to envisage alternative land and sea connections. Our aircraft are also particularly well suited to serving islands, so this is another factor which may encourage people to consider an ATR freighter.
How has Covid-19 impacted ATR?
Our priority last year was to ensure the safety of our employees and support our customers. We have developed guidelines for the storage of aircraft and their maintenance, and helped them ensure a sanitised environment for their passengers. Needless to say, the impact is significant and we have had to review our prospects for 2021. The unprecedented crisis we are facing has forced us to review our prospects for the coming years.
To adapt, we have launched an overall plan to reduce costs and right-size the company. However, we will not compromise on the high standards of our services and the availability of parts and components, and we are confident that the increasing interest for more CO² efficient aircraft and the aspiration of remote communities to grow and prosper will soon relaunch the sales of our aircraft. The adaptation plan will lead to reductions in ATR’s worldwide workforce. Thanks to different measures and agreements negotiated with our social partners, at this stage we have managed to avoid involuntary layoffs.