Air Cargo Insider

A321 conversion expected to penetrate European market, compete with 757s and 737s

ATSG and Precision Aircraft Solutions’ joint venture will help integrators meet e-commerce demand surges

In April, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a Supplemental Type Certificate for 321 Precision Conversions ⁠— a joint venture between Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) and Oregon-based, Precision Aircraft Solutions. 

Two of ATSG’s subsidiaries ⁠— Airborne Maintenance & Engineering Services and PEMCO Conversions — will provide manufacturing and conversion labor for the ATSG A321 conversions with the first slots available to their customers in Q4.

The urgency placed on this conversion is in direct response to the aging of the Boeing 757 freighter, which the A321 is targeted to ultimately replace. The A321 will also provide a competitive option for the Boeing 737-800, as differentiating features of the A321 can help integrators meet peak spikes in e-commerce-driven demand. 

“The A321 introduces something that hasn’t been in the narrowbody market to date, and that’s lower belly containerized capacity,” said Mike Andrews, director of conversion programs at PEMCO Conversions. “The containerized volume is 206 cubic meters because of the additional containers in the lower belly, as well as the upper deck. With the 757 and the 737, the belly freight is bulk. Containerized freight is important with e-commerce driving the market today because we ship a lot of bubble wrap in those big boxes that arrive at your door. We get a lot of volume versus weight and that’s driving the need for increased capacity.”

During the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find capacity for the demand, so that extra belly cargo space provided by the A321 will allow shippers the flexibility to manage the peaks in demand while still maintaining similar cost efficiency to the 737 narrowbody freighter aircraft. Plus, the A321 and Boeing 737 handle the same container sizes; integrators like DHL, FedEx and Amazon won’t have to maneuver among various container sizes as they shift aircraft.

Due to familiarity with Airbus and increased number of available flight crews, this particular conversion will initially be marketed in the European, Middle East and Pacific regions, with potential to appeal to the U.S. market. The A321 freighter that ATSG is offering has a larger flight deck with crew galley, full size lavatory, and baggage stowage than other A321 conversions on the market.  It also retained the full size L1/R1 doors for crew access.  This aircraft was designed from a deep understanding of freight operations with a focus on the needs of the flight crew.  

A321 conversion at PEMCO in Tampa, Florida

“For operators, it’s all about pilots,” said Andrews. “Every time you introduce a new aircraft to your program, you have to train pilots to fly that particular aircraft. It’s easier for a Boeing 737 to operate another Boeing airframe such as the 757 or vice versa. Airbus is already popular in the Chinese and European markets, so their access to trained flight crews is better than it is in the United States.  Therefore the market in China and Europe will be easier to enter.”

This conversion marks two firsts for ATSG: its foray into the narrowbody freighter category and its pursuit of in-house conversion with PEMCO, which Andrews expects to take 200 days for his team of 30 aviation maintenance technicians. 

“All of our previous aircraft have been converted by external companies,” said Kym Parks, marketing director at ATSG. “What PEMCO brings to the table is a history of reliability and safety with their Boeing 737 passenger to freighter conversion. Their record is impeccable to be quite honest, as their conversions are operating for customers around the globe.”

PEMCO’s Boeing 737 conversion program began in 1991, and since then, it has converted 175 passenger aircraft for cargo, most of which are still flying, Andrews said. “We’re talking about old airplanes when we get them, and then we put a lot of man hours and time in them and make them look like new machines when they leave our conversion facility.”

ATSG provides a 360-degree service around the aircraft lease, meaning its subsidiaries help provide maintenance and CMI services, as well as handling ground, gateway and airport operations. As it begins leasing A321s, Parks hopes that integrators will see the value in the  ATSG network of companies, allowing them to use the services to quickly ramp up volume to continue to meet the demands of the delivery driven e-commerce consumers. 

To learn more about ATSG and PEMCO, click here

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (No. 1).

Corrie White

Corrie is fascinated how the supply chain is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. She covers freight technology, cross-border freight and the effects of consumer behavior on the freight industry. Alongside writing about transportation, her poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro.