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Steady as she goes

The Boeing 737NG and 777 programmes are still some way off, and though there have been no major changes in the freighter conversion market recently, there has still been plenty of industry activity. Ian Harbison reports


Aeronautical Engineers Inc (AEI) kicked off its Boeing 737-800SF conversion programme in October 2014. In June 2015, GECAS became the launch customer with a commitment to convert up to 20 aircraft. In October this year, this was followed by orders from Aviation Capital Group (ACG) for 15 aircraft, plus 15 options. The first 737-800 is scheduled for conversion in June 2016 and should achieve FAA STC approval by the end of 2017, although the company hopes to beat this target. Entry into service would be in 2018.


However, Robert Convey, Senior Vice President Sales & Marketing at AEI, says the 737-400 still continues to dominate the market, with 21 aircraft expected to be delivered this year and up to 24 in 2016. With more aircraft becoming available from airlines such as Alaska, British Airways, Transaero and UT Air, there is plenty of feedstock, but this will be the ‘last hurrah’ for the programme, which he expects to only carry on for a few more years, with perhaps up to 60 more aircraft to be converted by 2018. By that time, Convey expects AEI to have accounted for a total of up to 120 conversions.


There is still plenty of demand for this class of freighter. In addition, Convey also sees a temporary comeback for the 737-300, as a bridge aircraft following the final 737-400 conversions and prior to the introduction of the 737-800. There are just under 100 aircraft out there, he says, but order quantities will be small.


As for the 737-800, the first GECAS aircraft is expected in June 2016. The STC should follow by the end of 2017, although the company hopes to beat this, with entry into service in 2018. Currently, the cargo door and restraint barriers have been fixed, with analysis of the floor structure and detailed design work continuing.


The McDonnell Douglas MD-80SF freighter conversion received EASA STC approval in October (the original FAA STC was received in February 2013). Current customers are happy with the aircraft and demand has been slow, but he expects to see a few orders each year, with a total of 15 to 20 aircraft by 2020.


The Bombardier CRJ200 SF conversion programme reached a milestone in May 2015 with the cutting of the door. Unfortunately, there has been a slip in certification from late 2015 to the end of the second quarter of 2016. This has been caused by engineering and resource problems. On the technical side, Convey explains that unlike other aircraft, the CRJ200 uses a bonded structure which has produced a few challenges. As for resources, the OEM has a stronger focus on the delayed certification of its C Series programme. The delay is not a problem for launch customer IFL Group, plus the others who have signed for a total of 40 conversions, he adds.


The design has evolved to offer eight 61.5in x 88in or eight 62in x 88in ULD positions. The aircraft also incorporates up to two supernumerary seats and houses a 9g rigid cargo/smoke barrier with sliding door.


The CRJ200SF work is being carried out at Commercial Jet in Jacksonville, FL, which is one of 10 current conversion lines worldwide. This is a reduction from 12 a year ago (one of the lines to be closed is AIROD Aerospace Technology in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) but he says this reflects a slight downturn and that demand could spike again, leading to lines being reopened.


IAI Bedek

For the last few years, IAI Bedek has been focusing on mid-size freighters, particularly the 767, converting almost 80 of this aircraft type. Rafi Matalon, Senior Vice-President Marketing and Business Development, says demand is set to increase over the next few years as residual values drop and more feedstock becomes available.


Matalon notes that the Chinese market is a big influence, as 767 capacity is needed to meet internal demand on flights of up to seven hours between cities. China is also important for smaller freighters, as is the US and other parts of the Far East, although he sees 737 Classic conversions being phased out due to reduced feedstock and legislation against older aircraft.


IAI Bedek is also looking at 737NG conversions and expects the first 737-700 to arrive at its Tel Aviv facility at the start of next year, with the STC planned for May 2016. On the 737-800, negotiations are at an advanced stage with lessors and operators, although feedstock issues mean that suitable aircraft may not be available until 2017 or later. China and the Far East will be the main markets.


For these smaller aircraft, Matalon claims cargo operators prefer to work with specialised conversion houses rather than the airframe OEMs – “they like to swim in the swimming pool, not in the ocean” - as companies like IAI Bedek can see when they might be getting into difficulties with the complexities of the project.


He also points out that a conversion house ideally has MRO capability as well. This is not just because a freighter conversion normally goes hand in hand with a heavy check – there is little point, he says, in converting an aircraft at one location only to ferry it to another for overhaul. It is because such a company is used to dealing with older aircraft and has the engineering capability to quickly resolve the unscheduled problems that inevitably arise when the aircraft is stripped out. It is also set up to handle the associated engine, landing gear and APU overhauls.  >>

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