The U.S. subsidiary of Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. (HAECO) said it will convert Airbus A321 passenger aircraft into freighters under license to 321 Precision Conversions, which has designed the retrofit kit and received regulatory approval for the structural modifications.
HAECO Americas said it will carry out structural modifications on the A321s at its recently expanded facility in Lake City, Florida, beginning in January.
It is the third maintenance and repair company partnering with 321 Precision Conversions on the new freighter initiative, a sign the company is picking up strong orders. 321 Precision, a joint venture between Portland, Oregon-based Precision Aircraft Solutions and Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG), already has outsourced metal cutting to Avocet in Sanford, Florida, and PEMCO, a Tampa, Florida, conversion company owned by ATSG.
“The wide-ranging maintenance and conversion experience offered by HAECO is a natural fit for our Airbus A321-200 passenger converted freighter program as we continue to expand conversion kit capacity to meet high customer demand,” said Gary Warner, president of 321 Precision Conversions, in a statement.
Interest in dedicated cargo aircraft is booming, especially among express delivery companies and third-party carriers that need smaller, efficient cargo jets to shuttle parcels on short and medium-length routes in their networks as e-commerce shopping spikes. The A321, which is only a year old as a converted freighter, fits the bill, as does the Boeing 737-800.
In August, aircraft leasing services provider BBAM Limited Partnership signed a contract with Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), a joint venture between Airbus and Singapore’s ST Engineering, to convert 18 of the single-aisle A321s into freighters. It is the largest order to date for the A321 converted freighter.
Last spring, Dresden, Germany-based EFW opened a second assembly line for A321 conversions in China and said it plans to open another one in the U.S. this year. EFW has delivered a handful of A321 freighters so far, while 321 Precision has tallied one delivery (now operating for SmartLynx Cargo in Europe) and has two planes in production.
Passenger-to-freighter conversions require significant science and engineering work to ensure safety. Major retrofits include covering the windows, removing seats, cutting in a large cargo door for main-deck loading of containers, reinforcing the subfloor and installing a cargo-handling system that maneuvers containers within the fuselage.
321 Precision obtained a Supplemental Type Certificate for the design changes in April from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The company said in a LinkedIn post two weeks ago that it successfully performed a ground vibration test on an A321 equipped with V2500 engines. The test is used to measure the aircraft’s behavior and ensure that the modified aircraft will respond to various weather conditions. The A321s are already certified with the CFM56 engines, but certification of the Pratt & Whitney V2500 engine will expand customer options for freighter conversions, it said.
Another company making preparations to enter the A321 conversion market is China-based Sine Draco Aviation Development Ltd., which has a U.S. office in Bellevue, Washington, that is pursuing U.S. certification of its airframe modification. It recently named Eric Chen, chairman of Airbus China, as a senior adviser.
In related news, G.E. Capital Aviation Services late last month announced it will lease two 737-800 Boeing converted freighters to Malaysian startup Kargo Xpress, a subsidiary of M Jets International. The planes are scheduled for delivery in October and January. Kargo Xpress began scheduled flights in June with one 737-400 freighter and plans to expand its footprint to northern China and western India to service underserved routes.