Titan Airways last week received the first of three Airbus A321 converted passenger freighters ordered from an Airbus engineering affiliate. The U.K. charter airline is the second carrier to add the aircraft to its fleet since the plane began initial production last fall.
ST Engineering in Singapore carried out the modification. The aircraft was previously operated by Thomas Cook Airlines, which went under last year, according to Titan’s website.
The A321 enters the market at an opportune time. Demand for air cargo services is soaring amid a pandemic-induced capacity shortage and the feedstock of reasonably priced A321s has grown with airlines prematurely retiring many of the single-aisle aircraft to stay afloat financially after their main passenger business dried up last year. The new production aircraft is catching on with air cargo operators, especially express delivery companies, as an efficient regional alternative to the Boeing 737-800 because of its extra capacity, ability to carry containers in the lower hold and fuel efficiency.
Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and ST Engineering, announced last week the redelivery of the second completed A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion to BBAM Limited Partnership, which is leasing the aircraft to Titan.
Qantas Freight began operating an A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion built by EFW in late October on behalf of Australia Post.
BBAM has ordered several more units from EFW. Titan, which currently operates two Boeing 737-400 freighters, says it will eventually transition to an all-Airbus freighter fleet.
“We are delighted to take delivery of our first A321P2F from BBAM and EFW,” said Alastair Willson, managing director of Titan Airways, in a statement. “The A321P2F will enable us to utilize all the benefits of this type into our airfreight activities, including best-in-class economics, reduced noise, a lower carbon footprint and real-time health monitoring, ensuring the highest levels of reliability.”
Another benefit of the A321 offering in a cargo configuration is that operators are getting a modern aircraft that is still in production, which will minimize issues getting necessary parts and supplies, according to companies involved in the program.
Conversion of passenger planes to cargo mode involves several structural changes besides seat removal, including the addition of a wide cargo door to allow for loading of pallets on the main deck, a rigid bulkhead to protect against shifting cargo, and a cargo-handling system for pulling containers through the hull.
The A321 converted freighter is the first in its size category to offer containerized loading in the belly hold. It has up to 10 container positions in addition to 14 full container positions on the main level. Boeing 737s, including the -800, can only fit loose cargo in the lower deck, which takes more manpower to load and unload.
The A321 has a gross payload of more than 61,000 pounds, which could increase in future conversions, according to EFW. Weight distribution software that comes with the aircraft gives operators the flexibility to fly empty or with random loads.
Under the joint venture, Dresden, Germany-based EFW designs the program and markets the aircraft. ST Engineering, a large aerospace and defense group with 23,000 employees, does the manufacturing, with Airbus providing technical support.
To meet the rising demand for the A321 passenger-to-freighter aircraft, EFW has established an additional conversion site at ST Engineering’s facility in Guangzhou, China, with plans to expand to the U.S. and Germany. The new facilities will increase its global conversion capacity to 25 slots per year by 2023. That is two more slots than it estimated in October when it first disclosed expansion beyond Singapore.
Luxembourg-based aircraft trading and leasing company Vallair last month said ST Engineering has begun work on the first of nine planes scheduled to be converted in China. The converted freighter is scheduled to be completed in the third quarter for customer SmartLynx Airlines, in Riga, Latvia. The company’s Malta subsidiary signed a lease with Vallair for two A321-200 cargo planes and plans to add eight more of the aircraft by 2023.
Vallair also has a tentative deal to lease 10 converted A321 freighters to Miami-based start-up Global Crossing Airlines.
A321 Precision, a U.S. aviation engineering firm, has previously said it expects to get Federal Aviation Administration approval of its design modification for an A321 freighter early this year.