Fast-growing Astral Aviation, a large all-cargo carrier based in Kenya, will be the first commercial operator of the new Airbus A320 converted freighter when it receives the plane in the second quarter, the manufacturer announced Monday.
Astral is subleasing the modified passenger aircraft from United Arab Emirates-based Vaayu Group, an aviation services company, which has reserved five A320 converted freighters from the aviation leasing arm of ST Engineering in Singapore.
The used narrowbody passenger aircraft are being modified by Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and ST Engineering. Astral will also take a second aircraft through Vaayu, but the company has yet to identify any customers for the remaining three aircraft being added to its portfolio.
“The upside of the pandemic was an increase in sales in the e-commerce space. For freighters and cargo handlers worldwide, this was unexpected. We saw this coming. We simply fast-tracked the process from conception to a reality in this A320P2F program,” Vaayu Group Chairman and President Emad Al Monayea said in the announcement.
Astral Aviation operates a fleet of 14 Boeing 747, 767 and 727 freighters from hubs in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Dubai and Liege, Belgium. Last week, the airline was identified as one of several companies that had signed nonbinding letters of intent to purchase large autonomous cargo jets from an aviation technology startup. The company also signed a lease last year for three Boeing 757-200 freighters.
The A320 will be Astral’s first Airbus, but CEO Sanjeev Gadhia said the company is considering adding more 320s, as well as the sister A321 converted freighter, the A330-300 widebody conversion and the newly released factory-built A350 from Airbus.
EFW’s first A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion went on sale about 18 months ago. Changing used A320/321 aircraft to full-time freighters opens up the roomy main deck to loading of heavy containers, which allows for fast, efficient loading. The Airbus family also has the added capability of holding small containers in the lower deck — an advantage over its category rival the Boeing 737-800, which can only accept bulk cargo below deck.
The A320 freighter can carry 10 cargo containers plus one pallet on the main deck and seven smaller containers on the lower deck. Its payload is 23 tons for distances of up to 1,800 nautical miles and 18.7 tons for flights reaching 2,500 nautical miles. By comparison, the A321 has 14 main-deck container positions, plus room for 10 smaller containers below.
The planes are quickly becoming popular with domestic and regional express operators because of their functionality, modern fly-by-wire technology and improved fuel efficiency compared to previous-generation aircraft.
U.K. charter carrier Titan Airways, which already operates two A321 converted freighters, has another conversion in progress with ST Engineering in Singapore and two further production slots that are scheduled to complete work in December and the second quarter of 2023, Managing Director Alastair Willson confirmed in an email.
Meanwhile, Lufthansa Cargo this month took delivery in Munich of its first A321 freighter from EFW, according to a LinkedIn post by the carrier. The plane, which has a 28-ton payload in the Lufthansa configuration, is going through final technical updates required for the German Federal Aviation Authority to allow the aircraft to be added to Lufthansa’s operating certificate.
Lufthansa has previously said its cargo division will obtain two A321 converted freighters and will outsource operation to Lufthansa CityLine, a regional passenger carrier that operates out of Frankfurt.
Another conversion house
In related news, EFW U.S. competitor 321 Precision Conversions has established its first production line outside the U.S. Hong Kong Aviation Engineering Co. (HAECO) Ltd. this month began performing A321 conversions using the 321 Precision Conversions design at its airframe maintenance facility in Xiamen, China. And HAECO Americas has begun conversion service at its Lake City, Florida, facility under a previously announced licensing deal, according to the companies.
321 Precision Conversions, a joint venture between Precision Aircraft Solutions in Portland, Oregon, and diversified cargo company Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG) also has production arrangements with maintenance repair organization Avocet, in Sanford, Florida, and ATSG subsidiary Pemco, based in Tampa, Florida.
The extra production lines offer more manufacturing capacity and choices for airline customers.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration awarded 321 Precision Conversions a supplemental type certificate for its A321 retrofit kit last April. The company delivered the first aircraft off the line to Latvia-based SmartLynx last summer.
Two other modified freighters are scheduled for redelivery in the second quarter, Zachary Young, director of sales for 321 Precision, told FreightWaves. The company plans to induct 10 aircraft into partner facilities this year, he added.
Precision Aircraft Solutions announced two weeks ago that was awarded a contract from AerSale, a maintenance, repair and overhaul organization, for six additional Boeing 757-200 conversions, plus two options. AerSale previously ordered 10 conversion kits and has taken delivery of five of them. AerSale is doing the conversions itself will begin inducting additional 757-200 conversions in HAECO Xiamen to supplement existing capacity in North America.
EFW has also extended A320/321 and A330 production to other parts of the world in recent months. It has completed seven A321 conversions since the fall of 2020, and expects to exceed that figure this year, the company has said.