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Textron completes 1st SkyCourier feeder freighter for FedEx

New breed of small FedEx aircraft is able to carry containers, increasing efficiency

The Cessna SkyCourier's ability to carry containerized freight is a big advantage over existing small cargo planes that are limited to loose cargo. FedEx plans to add up to 100 of the aircraft to its fleet. (Photo: Textron)

FedEx Express could take possession of the Cessna SkyCourier by midyear after Textron Aviation completed the first production unit of the cargo turboprop at its manufacturing facility in Wichita, Kansas.

Textron (NYSE: TXT) celebrated the rollout of the purpose-built freighter on Friday. It will be delivered to launch customer FedEx following certification by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is anticipated in the first half of 2022. FedEx has agreed to purchase up to 100 aircraft, with an initial order of 50 and options for 50 more.

The delivery schedule was delayed two years, partly due to challenges presented by COVID-19.

The SkyCourier 408 is a key part of FedEx’s fleet modernization program. The twin-engine, high-wing turboprop has almost twice the volumetric capacity of the single engine Cessna Caravan 208 currently in the FedEx Express feeder fleet. Unlike FedEx’s legacy feeder aircraft, the new Textron model has a large 87-inch-by-69-inch cargo door and flat floor equipped to handle up to three LD3 containers, providing faster loading and unloading for service in small and medium-sized markets where loose cargo is the norm. 

FedEx (NYSE: FDX) worked closely with Textron on the clean-sheet design of the SkyCourier. Other key features include a digital cockpit. The aircraft has a maximum payload of 6,000 pounds and range of 900 nautical miles. Textron’s flight test program utilized three aircraft that accumulated more than 2,100 hours since May 2020.

In December 2020, the express carrier took delivery of its first ATR72-600, which is also capable of carrying containers or palletized freight, and subleased it to ASL Airlines Ireland. FedEx has committed to buy 30 ATR72-600 turboprop freighters, with an option for 20 more. The second ATR72-600 was delivered to FedEx in May 2021 and is being operated by contractor Empire Airlines in the western U.S.

FedEx has nearly 700 aircraft in its fleet, 40% of which are small, propeller aircraft. The company expects to take delivery of three SkyCouriers this year, according to its latest quarterly fiscal statistics published in December.

The FedEx Express feeder network serves markets that are too small for direct air linehaul services and markets where the airline doesn’t have operating rights. There are more than 300 aircraft in the feeder network serving 45 countries. Most of the small aircraft are owned by FedEx and are leased to third-party carriers under their own operating certificates. 

Textron said the latest advancements in assembly and fabrication processes were used to manufacture the SkyCourier, including the use of monolithic machining. With the technique, major assemblies are milled from a single piece of metal rather than assembled from smaller pieces, reducing the overall number of parts and resulting in more precise tolerances for easier assembly. 

The SkyCourier was designed with serviceability as a priority, with quick access points throughout the aircraft for inspection and repairs. The team also developed innovative quick-release seats and overhead bins that can be installed quickly by a single operator.

The aircraft is powered by two wing-mounted Pratt & Whitney PT6A-65SC turboprop engines. Textron is also offering a 19-seat passenger version of the aircraft.

“The SkyCourier brings an impressive combination of cabin flexibility, payload capability, performance and low operating costs to the twin-engine utility segment. We look forward to this highly versatile aircraft entering the market very soon,” Ron Draper, president and CEO of Textron Aviation, said in the rollout announcement.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


Custom-built ATR72-600 gives FedEx more cargo capacity

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]