Qantas Freight on Tuesday began flying the world’s first Airbus A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion aircraft for Australia Post, which is expanding its fleet to meet demand for e-commerce shipments.
Luxembourg-based Vallair leased the aircraft to Qantas Airways’ cargo division, which plans to add one or two more A321s to support Australia Post. Elbe Flugzeugwerke GmbH (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and ST Engineering in Singapore, did the conversion work for Vallair and confirmed the first commercial flight, which FreightWaves previewed last month.
The A321 is expected to quickly become a popular alternative to the Boeing 737-800 for regional cargo carriers and express delivery companies. The 737-800 converted freighter has a three-year production head start, but aviation experts say all-cargo operators are attracted by the A321’s 3-4 tons of extra capacity, containerized lower deck that makes cargo transfers more efficient, and fuel efficiency.
To meet rising demand for A321 freighters, ST Engineering and EFW said they plan to set up additional modification sites in China, Germany and the U.S. by 2023, increasing conversion capacity to about 23 slots per year.
Miami-based Aeronautical Engineers, a licensed Boeing shop, said Monday it will convert four 737-800s for Aero Capital Solutions, a midlife aircraft lessor in Austin, Texas. The four aircraft, which have nearly 24,000 kilograms of main deck payload, will be the first freighters offered by ACS to the air cargo market.
STAECO, a repair organization in Shandong, China, will do the installations using AEI’s design kit. Work is underway on the first aircraft, which is scheduled to be delivered in January. The remaining aircraft are scheduled to be completed in the first half of 2021.
Boeing recently added another conversion line for the 737-800 to meet demand for the aircraft.
EFW is going head-to-head with 321 Precision Conversions for conversion jobs. The U.S. company recently completed its first test flight and says it could receive regulatory approval for its design by early next year. 321 Precision Conversions’ customer for that aircraft is also Vallair, which plans to lease it to SmartLynx Malta, a European contract airline that is also adding freighters to its fleet for the first time. SmartLynx is under contract for two planes and says it wants to operate 10 A321 freighters within three years.
A Chinese company, Sine Draco Aviation, is also preparing to enter the fray for A321 conversions by early 2022.
EFW says its version offers several advantages compared to its competitor:
- Strong design support from Airbus that ensures life-cycle value.
- Minimal maintenance costs associated with stress and fatigue.
- Up to $250,000 in annual fuel savings because the center of gravity is optimized to reduce the pilot’s need to trim the controls to maintain straight flight.
- More than 28 tons (over 61,800 pounds) of gross payload on its second conversion, with even further upside potential with upcoming conversions.
- Best-in-class flexibility for main deck with 14 full-size container positions vs. 13 full-size plus one pallet position.
- Optimized weight distribution allowing empty flights and random loading, providing the full range of flexibility — a huge added value for express carriers.
- Covers all weight variants for the A321.
321 Precision Conversions says its design has a lower operating weight, allows for more flexible use of the aircraft rear and has lower life-cycle costs.