Passenger-To-Freighter Conversions Shift With Growing Cargo Activity

Boeing 767-300ER BCF
The Boeing 767-300ER BCF continues to be a popular choice for the freighter market, although feedstock is limited. Its unique payload and operating economics favor e-commerce and express-oriented carriers.
Credit: Boeing

With the loss of belly space for cargo on passenger aircraft, dedicated main-deck air freighters are now in huge demand. If predictions remain accurate, this trend is going to continue. In fact, according to the Boeing Commercial Market Outlook for 2021-40, just over 3,400 freighters will be in service by the end of the forecast period. Of that number, passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversions of narrow- and widebody transports will account for 1,200 and 520 cargo aircraft, respectively.

Numbers aside, the P2F market is witnessing an important trend, in that different platforms are coming into vogue on both the jet and turboprop sides, especially as e-commerce grows. Put another way, a new generation of passenger aircraft is seeing a second life as cargo carriers, as an older, less fuel- and operationally efficient fleet is phased out.

“It appears that the [Boeing] 777 and 767 in the widebody segment are the favorites” for conversion says Adam Guthorn, managing director of Alton Aviation Consultancy in New York. “For narrowbodies, the [Boeing] 737-800 seems to be a focus as a direct replacement for the 737-400F, with significant demand driven by the growing e-commerce market.”

With narrowbodies dominating the P2F market, Guthorn cites three conversion programs for the 737-800 on-stream—the 737-800BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter), the 737-800SF (AEI Converted Freighter) and the 737-800BDSF from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). “Ample feedstock exists as the fleet ages and enters its prime conversion window—about 15 years—along with a significant number parked due to the pandemic,” Guthorn notes. “A conversion program for the smaller 737-700 also exists, although it is less popular.”

Customer demand remains strong for the 737-800BCF and 767-300BCF, according to a statement provided by a Boeing representative. In 2021, Boeing says it booked more than 100 orders and commitments for its Boeing Converted Freighters—its largest annual order total ever for that program. Last year, Boeing announced plans to add eight additional 737-800BCF conversion lines and two 767-300BCF conversion lines across its existing and new MRO suppliers.

The 737-800BCF, Boeing says, is the market leader in the standard-body P2F market, with orders and commitments for more than 200 and more than 75 redeliveries to date. But Airbus is also a strong contender, notably with the A321-200 as a 757-200 replacement, with higher containerized cargo capacity and an estimated fuel-burn savings of 15%.

Four A321-200 conversion programs exist. Of those, two are slated for regulatory approval this year: the A321-200SDF (Sine Draco Converted Freighter) and the A321-200CCF (C Cubed). The other two—the A321-200P2F (EFW Converted Freighter) and the A321-200PCF (321 Precision)—are on stream. “Feedstock is becoming more available, and we will see steady growth, with aircraft over the age of 15 representing 80% of the total A321 fleet in 2031,” Guthorn says.

As for widebody P2F conversions, Guthorn calls the 767-300ER an “extremely popular program” with “unique payload characteristics and operating economics,” making it attractive to a range of express and e-commerce-oriented cargo carriers. “Boeing’s 767ER BCF and the IAI 767-300ER BDSF are the two conversion programs,” he explains. “Feedstock, however, is limited, and there is no true replacement for that aircraft once conversions are exhausted. But operators can step up in size to an A330F or downsize to a 757F or A321F.”

Looking ahead, Guthorn says the A330F will become the medium widebody of choice as 767 conversions decrease in the coming years. “The A330 feedstock pool is very large and expected to grow rapidly over the next decade, with over 1,100 over age 15 by 2031,” he notes, adding that Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) is the sole conversion provider for the A330-200 and -300, with IAI targeting a program by late 2023.

According to Oliver von Tronchin, head of freighter marketing at Airbus, there is huge demand for both the A330P2F and the A321P2F, due in large part to their main deck cargo-carrying capabilities and the booming express and e-commerce markets. “The A321P2F is the only true one-to-one replacement for the aging 757 freighters and is more for the volume-driven general freight market,” he says.

As von Tronchin explains, the Airbus P2F program is a strategic partnership, formed in 2012 by Airbus, ST Aerospace in Singapore and EFW in Dusseldorf. The A321P2F, he points out, is the latest of the series to enter into service, debuting in 2020 with launch customer Vallair. “To date, it has more than 40 commitments,” he says. In a more recent development, the world’s first A320 P2F converted aircraft flew for the first time in December. Entry into service for that aircraft is planned for the first quarter of this year.

Regarding the Airbus widebody P2F program, von Tronchin reports that aside from older A300-600 and A310 freighters, the A330P2F will replace 767-200 and -300 converted freighters starting in the middle of this decade, with the A330-300 more for the high-volume, general freight market and the A330-200 geared more toward weight-driven, general freight shipping.

“The A330-300P2F offers more than 20% additional volume over the 767-300ER and ideally complements it in growing express markets as a step up in capacity,” von Tronchin says. “Since the A330 passenger aircraft fleet is much younger than the 767-300ER fleet, it will be available to take over from the 767-300ER conversion by the middle of this decade when there will be insufficient 767 feedstock.”

The A330P2F has more than 120 orders and commitments. The A330-300P2F entered service in December 2017 with launch customer DHL, and the A330-200P2F in 2018 with Egypt Air.

Considerable attention is being paid to Boeing 777-family conversions now, which includes IAI’s 777-300ERSF and a recently announced program by startup Mammoth Freighters focusing on the 777-200LR and 777-300ER.

Brian McCarthy, vice president of marketing and sales at Mammoth Freighters, says this will be the world’s first 777-200LR P2F. Initially, the conversion work will be performed at the Orlando, Florida-based company’s facility at Fort Worth Alliance Airport, using 10 777-200LRs originally operated by Delta Air Lines. He says all design, engineering and assembly of the cargo door and the door-surround structure will be done at Fort Worth, though as the program expands the modification work will be subcontracted to multiple MRO vendors. The first conversions are slated for delivery in 2023 to launch customer Cargojet in Canada.

“The 777-200LRs are excellent candidates for P2F due to their range, payload and cargo density,” McCarthy says. “This makes them an attractive option for both general and integrated cargo operations. Also, the 777-200LR shares the same wing and center wing-box with the larger 777-300ER, giving us a strong commonality.”

McCarthy also points out that the 777-200LR was Boeing’s choice for its factory freighter variant. “It is the baseline for a freighter conversion—a very robust platform to work from,” he adds.

Nonetheless, with only 60 777-200LRs built, McCarthy says feedstock is limited. He estimates that about 30 will be converted to freighters. However, it is a different story for the 777-300ER, with about 800 available in the future, he notes. “The long-term abundance of feedstock with this model is emerging, and it is seen as an excellent replacement for the 747 freighter as well as a step-up airplane for 767 operators to meet tomorrow’s cargo market demands,” he says.

McCarthy cites two reasons for the 777 models’ availability as freighter candidates. “People are starting to conclude that the 747 freighter will have to be replaced and at the same time COVID-19 has accelerated the entry of the 777 into the cargo-conversion aftermarket,” he says. “We never would have seen this amount of feedstock available otherwise. It is bringing an entire generation of fuel-efficient aircraft into the market.”

beechcraft 1900D regional airliner undergoing P2F conversion
A Beechcraft 1900D regional airliner, formerly operated by a passenger carrier, is undergoing a P2F conversion for cargo carrier Alpine Air Express at Yingling Aviation in Wichita. Credit: Yingling Aviation

P2F conversions are also ramping up on the turboprop side. For example, Provo, Utah-based Alpine Air Express has been converting Beechcraft 1900Ds to full freighters for the past five years, says Michael Dancy, the company’s president and CEO. To date, under Alpine Air Express’s supplemental type certificate (STC), 10 of the carrier’s 32 1900Ds have been converted, with the remaining 22 undergoing conversions at six MROs worldwide. The P2F modification includes a wide cargo door and roller-equipped floor. Approximately 300 1900Ds are still in passenger operation globally, which will be feedstock for conversions.

Dancy says the 1900D, originally a 19-passenger aircraft, provides 40% more cargo volume than the 19-passenger Beechcraft 1900C, also operated by Alpine Air Express. The aircraft, he says, was selected for conversion to address growth of e-commerce and subsequent increases in air freight shipments. “We expect to acquire more, as acquisition costs have remained stable at about $3.5 million,” he adds.

In another development, the world’s first P2F conversion of the Saab 2000 is taking place at Taby Air Maintenance (TAM) in Orebro, Sweden, reports CEO Par Gulle. Slated for completion under TAM’s STC by the summer of this year, the conversion was booked by Miami-based Jetstream Aviation Capital, a turboprop leasing and sales specialist.

The conversion involves removal of all passenger-related systems plus installation of stronger floor panels with roller balls, new cabin panels and a smoke- detection system. Other modifications include LED lights and a restraint system using spider nets for cargo bay separation.

Donald Kamenz, Jetstream Aviation Capital’s global director of Saab 2000 leasing and sales, reports that the company has 30 Saab 2000s in its portfolio, which represent half of the aircraft’s production run. Of that, he envisions about 15 being converted for cargo, with 35-40 available globally for P2F.

“The Saab 2000 is a turboprop with regional jet performance,” says Kamenz. “The TAM design gives the Saab 2000 freighter 30% more palletized capacity than a CRJ 200 and at less fuel-burn costs. And it is nearly as fast.”

The aircraft’s capacity and range are major selling points, says Kamenz. At 1,960 ft.3 of cargo volume and a 14,600-lb. maximum payload, the Saab 2000 has an 860-nm range. “People are looking at it for Part 135 ad hoc charter, as well as for scheduled Part 121, given their volume needs in the current e-commerce environment,” he explains.

The first Saab 340B cargo conversion program, also under a TAM STC, is being carried out by C&L Aviation in Bangor, Maine. The company is responsible for all conversion work and marketing of the freighter in the U.S. Four of seven on order have been delivered, with the first one to Legends Airways in Lakeland, Florida, in June 2021. According to C&L Aviation CEO Chris Kilgour, the aircraft fills a replacement space for the Embraer EMB 120, Beechraft 99 and the Beechcraft 1900 series. “Missions for the freighter are hub-feeding, as well as point-to-point urgent cargo,” he says.

Kilgour notes that 220 Saab 340Bs are operating globally, with another 10-20 in storage. The fleet, which averages 30 years old, is at about its half-life. “The airframe service life is 90,000 hr., and since operators are now doing 1,000 hr. per year, there is another 40 years remaining on the airframe at that rate,” he says. “Once people see it operating, there will be increased demand for the aircraft type in the U.S., particularly from small, independent cargo carriers.”