The first Airbus A320 passenger plane to be converted to a freighter configuration made its maiden flight Wednesday at an aerospace park in Singapore, the company behind the new design said.
Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and Singapore’s ST Engineering, said the first customer for the refurbished cargo jet is United Arab Emirates-based Vaayu Group, which last month announced it will lease five of the aircraft from ST Engineering’s aviation leasing arm.
The plane is in its certification phase and expected to be ready for revenue service in the first half of 2022. EFW said the modified A320 will spend the next few weeks undergoing a series of flight tests to validate its structural redesign before European Union regulators ultimately decide whether to approve it for commercial operation.
Vaayu Group pointed to the significant increase in global e-commerce sales and the resulting need in regional freighters as the reason behind its multi-aircraft investment.
The A320 is the smaller sister to the A321, which EFW introduced to the market in October 2020. The first A321 converted freighter was delivered to Qantas, which is flying it for Australia Post. EFW has since built two more conversions for Qantas, with several other deliveries to companies such as Titan Airways and SmartLynx Airlines. In August, aircraft leasing services provider BBAM Limited Partnership signed a contract with EFW to convert 18 of the single-aisle A321s into freighters.
U.S.-based 321 Precision Conversions received Federal Aviation Administration certification in the spring to convert A321s and has also started producing its version of the freighter.
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 ability to load containers in the belly gives the A320/321 an advantage over its main rival, the Boeing 737-800, which is limited to loose cargo and bags in the lower hold. Vaayu Group cited more payload and containerized volume than the 737-700 or -800 as a factor in its decision. It said it also liked that the A320 has 85% stowage efficiency, doors that open out to ensure a larger storage area and lower maintenance costs due to its advanced materials, efficient engines and Airbus support.
All three aircraft conversions are based on relatively young used passenger aircraft, which means they are more modern and efficient than previous generations of all-cargo aircraft. The A321 and 737-800s, which Boeing started converting three years ago, are attracting strong interest from express delivery companies, as well as all-cargo airlines with domestic and regional operations.
Conversions are structural overhauls that include removing seats and storage bins, covering windows, reinforced flooring, new interior sidewalls, a larger cargo door, a 9G rigid barrier to protect the cockpit, and a cargo-handling system for maneuvering containers.
EFW also does conversion work for the Airbus A330-200/300.
Airbus recently forecast a need for about 2.440 widebody and single-aisle freighters for growth and replacement during the next 20 years, of which about 1,000 will be converted single-aisle freighters such as the A320 and A321.
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