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Airbus to expand freighter conversion lines to US, China

Trade, e-commerce demand drive orders for transforming used A321s, A330s into cargo jets

An Airbus A330-300 passenger-to-freighter plane converted for DHL before application of paint and logo. (Photo: EFW)

(Updated Oct. 25, 2021, 9:05 A.M. ET)

Airbus plans to open by year’s end a production line in the U.S. for converting used A321 passenger jets into freighters as part of an expansion strategy that will triple output by 2024 for the narrowbody aircraft and the larger A330, according to a company official.

Investments by the aircraft manufacturer, and aftermarket competitors, are designed to address rapidly growing demand from express delivery and regular all-cargo operators with heavy shipment volumes.

Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus (DXE: AIR) and Singapore’s ST Engineering, is increasing its capacity to the point that it will be able to produce about 60 converted aircraft per year for conversion — about 30 each for the A330 and the new A321 narrowbody conversion programs — by 2024. That is up from the 19 conversions it expects to carry out this year, spokeswoman Anke Lemke told FreightWaves.

The company is setting up a new conversion line in San Antonio for the smaller A321 program that is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. It also plans to establish production facilities in China and the U.S. for the A330 reconfiguration in 2022, Lemke said. In each case EFW will partner with existing airframe repair facilities.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, VT San Antonio Aerospace, one of ST Engineering’s U.S. facilities, announced on LinkedIn that it has welcomed its first A321 for the new modification line.

Converting used aircraft into cargo configuration is a complex engineering task that requires extensive design work before cutting a large cargo door in the fuselage for loading containers on the main deck, as well as reinforcing the floor, adding a rigid barrier to protect the cockpit and installing a cargo handling system for maneuvering containers.

EFW, Dresden, Germany, has only converted a dozen A330s so far (nine -300 variants plus three -200s) because the aircraft is still relatively young. DHL has received eight of the conversions and has orders for 20 more, Cargo Facts has reported. More of the medium-size widebodies are available at reasonable prices now because cost-cutting passenger airlines, aligning fleets to lower travel demand and preferring newer planes that burn less fuel, are discarding many of them. There are about 500 A330s in storage, according to Leeham News.

Nearly all of EFW’s production slots for the A330 have been booked through 2026, and the company is fully booked through mid-2024 for the A321 program, Lemke said.

In August, BBAM Limited Partnership placed an order with EFW for 18 passenger-to-freighter conversions of the A321, the largest order so far for new aircraft. EFW delivered its first A321 a year ago and has only converted a handful of the small jets into pure cargo aircraft so far. EFW said at the time that many of the conversions for BBAM will be carried out at ST Engineering’s airframe facility in the U.S. The company previously said that ST Engineering will be adding an A321 conversion line at its VT Mobile Aerospace facility in Mobile, Alabama.

Analysts expect the A321 to be in high demand because of its ability to carry small containers in the lower deck, which makes loading and unloading faster, and its 15% greater fuel efficiency compared to the Boeing 737-800, its most direct competitor that has been in the market for nearly four years. Feedstock for the relatively young aircraft type is also high because of the pandemic’s damage to airlines, which have an incentive to move out of late-model planes because the A321 passenger plane is still being produced by Airbus.

More competition

Earlier this month, Israel Aircraft Industries announced plans to launch an A330 freighter conversion program with support from leasing company Avolon, which ordered 30 modifications for planes it will supply.

EFW rival 321 Precision Conversions recently announced that Greenwich Highland Aviation is an early adopter of its version of the A321 freighter. The aircraft leasing company will send it two A321-200s in 2022 for conversion work, with the first reconfiguration commencing in January. Airframe reassembly will be conducted by licensed partner HAECO Americas in Lake City, Florida, using 321 Precision’s modification kit.

Greenwich Highland will lease the two cargo jets to Global Crossing (X) Airlines, a startup passenger and cargo airline based in Miami. GlobalX said that the first A321 freighter is scheduled to enter service in July followed by the second aircraft in December. The company has leased a total of four aircraft but did not indicate which engineering house will transform the additional aircraft in 2023. 

321 Precision is a joint venture among Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG), which owns cargo airlines, a leasing company, and an engineering outfit that specializes in Boeing 737 conversions, and Precision Aircraft Solutions of Beaverton, Oregon, which made a name converting Boeing 757 aircraft. The company received Federal Aviation Administration approval in April for its design to structurally modify the A321 with a wide cargo door and other features, so it can carry heavy cargo on the main deck.

Meanwhile, French-Luxembourg aviation company Vallair recently delivered its third A321 freighter to SmartLynx Malta, the new cargo subsidiary of Latvian passenger charter operator  SmartLynx. The plane was the first A321 cargo conversion done in China, where EFW opened its second production facility last spring.

SmartLynx is operating the freighters under contract with package carrier DHL Express.

Vallair, which went through EFW for conversion work, delivered the world’s first A321 freighter to Qantas Freight a year ago.

The air cargo sector is experiencing extremely strong growth, heavily driven by e-commerce, time-sensitive and high-value cargo such as COVID vaccines, massive backlogs in ocean shipping, and growth in international trade.

Vallair estimates the market for A321 converted freighters could number in the hundreds over time.

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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. 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]