Boeing is close to adding a new freighter conversion programme to its line-up. The US aircraft maker has received the green light from its board to turn Boeing 737-800 planes into an all-cargo configuration.
Boeing had signalled earlier that it was working on a conversion scheme for the 737-800. In April, conversion specialist Aeronautical Engineers Inc (AEI) had announced its programme for the aircraft.
The all-cargo version of the 737-800 will be able to carry 12 pallets on the main deck or 11 full-size containers plus one half ULD position, one pallet more than the 737-400.
According to Bob Convey, AEI's vice president of sales and marketing, developing the programme will take close to three years, which would see the first units become available in 2017. He is bullish about the 737-800, predicting that all integrated carriers will use it.
“I think this is going to be the narrowbody freighter for the next 20 years,” he said.
For now, AEI has its hands full with freighter conversions of Boeing 737-400s and 737-300s. In mid-October, it announced an order for seven units from New Zealand-based leasing firm Airwork. In the third quarter, AEI delivered eight converted 737 freighters to its clients.
The longer-term outlook for 737s-turned-cargo aircraft is no less bright. Both Boeing and Airbus, who recently released their predictions on demand for freighter aircraft over the next two decades, envisage lively activity in the narrowbody conversion segment over the period. Owing to development and operating costs, all narrowbody freighters are former passenger planes turned into all-cargo configuration.
Boeing projects that 960 narrowbody cargo aircraft will enter service over the next two decades – the lion’s share of the 1,330 converted freighters altogether that it anticipates to come on stream during that period.
Of the 840 new freighters entering service during that time, 590 will be in the large bracket (with payloads over 80 tonnes) and 250 will be production freighters with payloads between 40 and 80 tonnes.
Overall, the world jet freighter fleet will swell from 1,690 aircraft to 2,730 in 2033, Boeing forecasts. The manufacturer’s projections are based on average annual growth of 4.7 percent for air cargo traffic (measured in revenue tonne-kilometres). Its previous long-term forecast had envisaged 5.0 percent annual growth.
“We see strong signs of a recovery as air freight traffic levels continue to strengthen after several years of stagnation,” said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing. “The air cargo market is now growing at nearly the long-term rates.”
While the Asia-North America and Asia-Europe sectors will remain the heaviest air freight markets in terms of volume, Boeing anticipates the fastest growth rates on intra-Asian trade lanes, in China’s domestic market and in the Asia-North America sector.
Airbus was less optimistic in its latest forecast, projecting average annual growth of 4.5 percent, down from the 4.8 percent it predicted in its previous 20-year forecast. The European plane manufacturer predicts that 2,358 freighters will be delivered over the next 20 years. Of these, 612 will have payload capability between 10 and 30 tonnes, 1,145 between 30 and 80 tonnes and 601 large freighters. Airbus (which has no large freighter in its portfolio) has been more bullish on the mid-size segment than its competitor, arguing that regionalization will tilt the balance away from large freighters to mid-sized models.
According to Airbus, the global freighter fleet will rise from 1,645 units to 2,645 over the period. Its analysts reckon that the growth in bellyhold capacity will lead to a slight decrease in the market share of freighters.
Executives from Boeing and from some freighter outfits have questioned the assumption that freighters are losing market share. “The balance between passenger and freighter aircraft will largely stay where it is now,” said Michael Steen, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Atlas Air.
Both manufacturers see strong demand for mid-sized freighters due to the rise in regional traffic, such as in the intra-Asian arena, while the surge in e-commerce is fuelling demand for narrowbody as well as mid-sized cargo planes.
By Ian Putzger
Air Freight Correspondent | Toronto