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African passenger airline adds 1st all-cargo aircraft

RwandAir prepares to launch freighter service with Boeing 737-800

RwandAir has received its first freighter as it expands beyond the passenger business. (Photo: RwandAir)

The flag carrier of Rwanda is the latest to join the ranks of passenger airlines that have started up freighter fleets since the COVID crisis demonstrated the potential for air cargo business.

RwandAir last week received its first dedicated cargo jet, a Boeing 737-800 converted freighter. The plane is being leased from Merx Aviation, which hired Miami-based Aeronautical Engineers Inc. to do the modification at a partner facility in Kelowna, British Columbia, according to AEI and aircraft tracking site

RwandAir said it will operate the plane, which will be based at its Kigali hub, to key destinations in Africa and the Middle East, including Johannesburg; Nairobi, Kenya; and the United Arab Emirates. Until now, the airline has exclusively carried freight in the lower hold of passenger aircraft.

“Cargo is of ever-increasing importance for the aviation industry, and as a landlocked country, we recognise the importance and value of good cargo connections,” said CEO Yvonne Makolo in a statement. “We want to ensure that Africa is seamlessly connected to the world, driving economic growth and valuable trade deals.”

RwandAir’s freighter is relatively young for a conversion. The sweet spot for most 737-800 conversions is between 17 and 22 years. But the availability of reasonably priced aircraft for a second stint in cargo is increasing as airlines transition to the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A321neo families, which offer significantly better fuel efficiency and lower operating costs.

The converted 737-800 previously flew for TUI Airways and Sunwings Airlines, according to

Aircraft tracking site Flightradar24 showed the RwandAir freighter stopped in Reykjavic, Iceland, and Athens on its way to Rwanda.

RwandAir’s passenger fleet has two 737-700s, four 737-800s, two Dash 8-400 turboprops, two CRJ900s, one Airbus A330-200 and one A330-300.

Narrow-body conversions

737-800s have dominated the conversion market for narrow-body aircraft in the past three years.

Merx Aviation is owned by a fund managed by Apollo Asset Management (NYSE: APO), a huge private equity investment company that recently agreed to acquire cargo airline Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) for $3 billion plus debt. Merx owns and manages about 45 737 legacy aircraft, but the conversion of the RwandAir unit is its first all-cargo aircraft.

A number of passenger airlines have launched all-cargo divisions since 2020 to diversify revenues and capture more cargo business by offering more consistent service on key routes for shippers than is possible when at the mercy of passenger schedules. Many carriers responded to the shut-off of passenger travel and intense demand for freight transportation during the height of the pandemic by temporarily repurposing aircraft for dedicated cargo operations. That experience caused many executives to reconsider how to tap the growing air cargo market over the long term.

Airlines with new freighter operations include Air Canada, Global Crossing, Silver Airways, Gol, WestJet and CityWings, a Lufthansa subsidiary.

Aviation authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia recently certified AEI’s design for modifying passenger aircraft with a cargo configuration, opening the door for leasing companies to place converted aircraft with operators in those countries. 

AEI’s converted 737-800 offers a main deck payload of 52,700 pounds, with 11 full-height container positions plus room for a smaller container.

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. 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]