After years of difficulties, the hangars at the Bedek MRO division of Israeli Aircraft Industries are full and faces are smiling. “We are experiencing a period of increased demand for conversion into freighters and Bedek is up to its neck in work,” says senior director and group marketing and business development manager Rafi Matalon.

Bedek operates 15 hangars at Ben Gurion Airport, all of them busy and booked for years in advance. The recent “hit” is the conversion of the Boeing 767-300, a model that best meets the exponential growth in online commerce, reflected by growing need for air cargo capacity. “It takes about four months to convert this aircraft into a freighter, but we will soon reduce this time radically,” Matalon says.

With firm orders to fill, this time saving will be important for business, but it will not be enough. To deal with the order volume, IAI is opening an aircraft conversion site in Mexico City, shifting some of the 767-300 conversion workload. Mexicana MRO Services will run the new site, with Bedek providing subcontractor services. As owners of the supplementary type certificate for the conversion, IAI will retain engineering authority and overall responsibility for the conversions performed at the conversion site.

The first aircraft for conversion is expected to be inducted by the end of this month, with an order for additional aircraft to follow. In light of market forecasts of continued growth in the demand for conversion into freighters, IAI expects the collaboration with Mexicana to yield projects worth tens of millions of dollars in the coming years.

The sharp growth in demand is derived from online giant Amazon’s decision to establish its own airline and cargo hub in Kentucky. Amazon plans to operate a fleet of 40 Boeing 767-300F aircraft. Sixteen of the aircraft are already in service, operated by Air Transport International and Atlas Air; both use aircraft converted by Bedek and have many more on order.

Narrowbody business is also growing with the availability of more efficient aircraft in the feedstock. “We recently completed certification of a conversion of Boeing 737-700,” says Matalon. “The new model offers improved economics – it increases the 737 cargo capacity to 45,000 lb., the engines are more efficient and the winglets offer additional fuel saving.” For the future, Bedek expects the 737-800 to be even more attractive.

“We plan to have the [supplemental type certificate (STC)] approval for this type within a year,” Matalon said, adding that the company also plans to enter the Airbus line (A320) as feedstock of these types become available. “Both the Boeing 737-800 and A320 are expected to fulfill the role of the Boeing 757 as it reaches the end of its productive life span in few years.” To address the demand for narrowbody freighters, Bedek has opened two conversion sites in China.

Next in line is the conversion of the Boeing 777 into a freighter. “We have reached an agreement with a launch customer to convert a few Boeing 777-200s. Upon [receiving] IAI’s top management approval, we will kick off the program, and we expect to get the STC in 36 months. Due to the high cost of the 777 feedstock, this project is not feasible yet, but we expect it to reach a price point where we will be able to deliver the 777-200 as a replacement for current 747- and MD-11-based freighters.”