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777 ‘Big Twin’ program reaches key stage for cargo conversion

GECAS says development of first prototype is on track

Israel Aerospace Industries will do the metal cutting to turn this Boeing 777 into an all-cargo aircraft. (Photo: GE Capital Aviation Services)

Israel Aerospace Industries has reached a milestone in development of the Boeing 777 passenger-to-freighter conversion program, moving beyond the planning phase to physically modifying the prototype aircraft.

IAI and partner GE Capital Aviation Services, a major leasing company, announced Tuesday that the first extended range 777-300 will officially be inducted into IAI’s Tel Aviv repair facility toward the end of June.

Kalitta Air, a large all-cargo operator based in Michigan, is the launch customer for the 777-300 converted freighter program. The first of three aircraft ordered by Kalitta last October is scheduled for delivery in 2023.

The partners said they have passed the halfway phase of securing a Supplemental Type Certificate for the 777-300 conversion, dubbed the “Big Twin” for its size and two GE-90 engines.

“We’ve begun executing on the dedicated freighter design developed by the IAI and GECAS Cargo team towards manufacturing the kits, and the actual conversion phase under a licensing from Boeing,” Rich Greener, senior vice president and manager of GECAS Cargo, said in a news release.  

GECAS, a subsidiary of General Electric (NYSE: GE), is supplying IAI with 777s from its portfolio that have reached their useful life as passenger aircraft. Many airlines have retired widebody aircraft such as the 777 during the pandemic as part of an overall strategy to downsize, match aircraft to expected travel demand and shift to more efficient aircraft. Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) last year retired its 18 twin-aisle 777s. 

The prototype 777-300, previously operated by Emirates, has been undergoing ground and flight tests since GECAS delivered the plane to IAI last summer. IAI is now preparing it for reconstruction.

The 777s are highly regarded in the airfreight industry for their ability to handle large payloads, either as passenger planes with cargo in the belly or as purpose-built freighters straight off the Boeing production line. They are popular with integrators because of their volumetric capacity, which enables them to carry large amounts of lightweight parcels. DHL has ordered 22 of the widebody aircraft from Boeing (NYSE: BA) since 2018, and it is Federal Express’ (NYSE: FDX) long-haul freighter. 

GECAS says the 777 converted freighters will burn 21% less fuel per ton than the larger 747-400 freighters and offer 25% more cargo volume than the 777-200. The plane’s flight range capability of up to 7,370 nautical miles, depending on the payload, is expected to supersede the remaining 747-400 and MD11 freighters in service.

Demand for pure freighters is extremely high with the air cargo market saturated with shipments during a period of under capacity because passenger airlines are flying at sharply reduced levels. Engineering shops are experiencing backlogs to retrofit passenger planes for cargo operations.

GECAS has previously said it will take four to five months to produce each subsequent aircraft modification.

New passenger-to-freighter conversion programs require years of planning, design and engineering work. The actual conversion will involve the addition of a main deck cargo door, window plugs, a modified crew compartment, a reinforced fuselage, a heavy-duty floor that can support 220,000 pounds, a rigid cockpit barrier and a powered cargo-loading system.

Since this will be the first aircraft conversion of its type, the plane must meet various airworthiness certification standards.

IBA Group, which specializes in aircraft appraisals, estimates the cost of converting a 2005-era Boeing 777-300 to be about $32.5 million. The all-in price, including aircraft acquisition, is closer to $54.5 million. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]