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EU certifies 1st light-duty freighter aircraft

AELF FlightService has commitment for 10 Airbus A330 crossover aircraft to haul packages

AELF FlightService will use modification kits from engineering firm Avensis to fly large Airbus A330 jets with cargo in the cabin. (Photo: AELF)

European Union aviation authorities have approved the first design for a permanent mini-conversion of a large passenger aircraft to carry light cargo in the cabin, offering airlines a freighter shortcut that doesn’t involve ruggedizing the compartment for heavy containers.

London-based engineering startup Avensis Aviation said Thursday it obtained supplemental certification for modifying the interior of Airbus A330 passenger aircraft with a partial cargo configuration that involves removing seats, lavatories, galleys and bins.

The decision frees up charter operator AELF FlightService, the second customer for Avensis’ Medius modification kits, to move ahead with a deal to retrofit 10 used passenger jets. Two installations are already underway. AELF expects the first A330 to be delivered this month and is already booking cargo contracts for the aircraft, an AELF spokesperson said. Another “soft” freighter is expected to be delivered in October.

Passenger airline TAP Air Portugal is Avensis’ launch customer. It actually provided the prototype A330-200 aircraft used to secure the supplemental certificate. Work was done at TAP’s repair facility in Lisbon, with technical help from Avensis. Aviation safety bodies require prototype aircraft to be built and tested before a design is certified.

Dedicated freighters remain in high demand with global air cargo capacity still 9% below pre-pandemic levels and interest in more reliable transport than passenger airlines for demanding e-commerce requirements.

A partial reconfiguration for cargo is much cheaper and quicker than a traditional passenger-to-freighter conversion, which requires installation of a cargo door, reinforced flooring and wing boxes, a 9G cockpit and a container handling system. But without those features, the plane is limited to carrying light boxes that must be handloaded, requiring two or three times as many workers to fill or empty the cabin.

That’s fine for companies like AELF FlightService that believe there is a large subset of the air cargo market that doesn’t require a pure freighter to move lightweight parcels. The semi-freighter also enables operators to take advantage of the strong market much faster because reconfiguration can be done in weeks instead of months. 

“We feel strongly about the long-term potential for light cargo and are thrilled to see this development.  We’ve already undertaken the Avensis modifications so will be among the first to market offering cargo capacity with this supplemental type certificate (STC) now approved,” said Joe Cirillo, AELF’s chief operating officer, in a statement to American Shipper.  

Cabin cargo enshrined in regulation

The certification to change the aircraft’s category to a freighter is necessary for airlines that want to keep flying passenger jets with cargo on the cabin floor without limitation. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration granted temporary authority to modify passenger cabins for cargo carriage without following normal redesign procedures so airlines could move critical supplies when the pandemic threw economies into turmoil. Some airlines strapped boxes to the seats and a few even removed seats. The EASA exemption expired at the end of July. 

The Avensis modification, which is reversible, is the first to feature a Class E cargo compartment without a wide cargo door. Class E freighters have smoke and fire detection systems, as well as a cockpit smoke barrier. 

Vallair, a French aviation services firm, is developing a similar light-duty redesign for A330-300 aircraft that EASA must still certify. The company says its product will come with a conveyor that fits inside the cargo hold to facilitate loading and unloading of boxes.

U.S.-based Eastern Airlines also plans to self-modify and operate stripped-down Boeing 777s as package freighters once it receives FAA approval. And in February, Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency certified Embraer’s small E195 as a Class F freighter, meaning it has a fire suppression system and can transport cargo in the cabin in heat and fire-resistant containers.

The reversible nature of the cabin configurations gives airlines flexibility to ride the seasonal highs of the respective passenger and cargo markets by switching to a different configuration as circumstances change — a process that only takes a couple of weeks.

The STC applies to the A330, but Avensis said in an email that it plans to secure certification for other aircraft platforms and expects quick approval from the FAA under a mutual recognition process established with the EU.

AELF officials planned to have some cabin freighters in use earlier this year, but reinstalled seats in some temporary passenger freighters and placed an order to fully convert a Boeing 767 medium widebody jet when EASA took longer than expected certifying the Medius redesign.

“Medius is a major change which introduces modifications at several levels like new smoke detection systems and a modified environmental control system. Being the first of its kind, Avensis worked closely with EASA during the certification process to achieve the STC. This is not a temporary conversion but a change of passenger aircraft into Class E Freighter, and therefore the approval required at regulatory level was extensive,” Avensis explained in an email.

Avensis says it has more product launches on the way, including a complete conversion with a main-deck cargo door. 

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. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric 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. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]