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A triple threat

With the 777X, Boeing is bringing the 777 convincingly up to date, so what will the next generation aircraft mean for cargo carriers? And what are the prospects for P2F conversions of older airframes? Paul E Eden asks

Boeing expects to fly its 777X replacement for the exceptional 777 later this year; it anticipates first delivery in 2020. The initial 777-9 model will seat up to 425 passengers and cover 7,600nm (14,075km). It employs General Electric’s GE9X turbofan and introduces a brand new composite wing featuring raked, folding wing tips. By designation 777, the 777Xis, as Josh Binder, Vice President and General Manager of the 777X programme described it in November of last year, “…a new airplane and a new production system”.


Meanwhile, freight operators can eventually expect the dawning of an era of 777 passenger to freighter (P2F) conversions, in particular as airlines replace the 777-300ER aircraft with the new model. Industry observers have also talked of a 777X-based production freighter, but with the 777F just a decade old and selling strongly, there seems little need for urgency.


The 777-9 wins over the -300ER in belly freight capacity too. Explaining how airlines tend to use their 777 belly capacity, Thomas Crabtree, Regional Director – Airline Market Analysis at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, tells Airline Cargo Management that the forward lower hold is usually reserved for cargo and the aft lower hold for LD3s, primarily as a passenger baggage system. He says the 777X accommodates eight lower hold pallets and two LD3s forward, and as many as 23 LD3s aft, for a total volume of 218.2m2, which is slightly more than a 777-300ER and more than an A350-1000. The -300ER has eight pallet positions forward, commonly equating to 160kg/m3 and as much as 200kg/m3; forward hold loads can be as heavy as 3 tonnes per pallet, while total load on a typical long-haul passenger flight is between 8 and 10 tonnes.


Mark Diamond, Principal at ICF International, provides independent thought on the 777-300ER airliner’s freight capacity: “It has performed exceptionally well as a cargo aircraft, offering 20 or more tonnes of capacity in the belly on long haul missions, compared to 100-110 tonnes or so for widebody freighters, including the 777F or 747-400F. This capability, augmented by other highly cargo-capable passenger aircraft, including the 787 and A350, has permitted a number of passenger carriers, among them Air France/KLM, Singapore Airlines and EVA Air, to reduce their freighter fleets substantially over the past decade.”


Production freighter

On the subject of production freighters, Jon Whaley, an IBA Group Freight Analyst, reports: “Some within the industry expect a 777X freighter announcement in the next four to five years. It is IBA’s view that this is a realistic expectation, since production of the passenger variants will be well under way. Additionally, the 777F will be approaching the need for replacement.”

Diamond says: “The 777F has been popular with scheduled combination airlines due to its crew and maintenance commonality with passenger 777s. In contrast, passenger-configured 747s are now out of favour and rapidly being retired, limiting the 747-400F and -8F commonality benefits. There is certainly a need for large widebody freighters going forward, driven in no small part by burgeoning e-commerce demand. However, production is not keeping up with demand. The 747-8F and 777F are the only large capacity new-build freighters in production, with the 747-8F line now at a trickle and no new orders being accepted.”

Diamond recalls as far back as 2013 that Boeing floated a trial balloon about launching a new 777X freighter, based on the -8, as a replacement for the 777F, but there’s been little talk of it since. “As 747-8F and 777F new-build freighter production wind down, and more 747-400Fs and the remaining MD-11Fs are retired over time, the key question is whether 777-300ER P2F conversion programmes alone will be sufficient to address market needs, or if there is a case for a new-build 777X freighter too.

“Right now, it looks like Boeing is focusing its efforts on a -300ER P2F conversion, with earliest service entry around 2022, rather than a 777X freighter. There are almost 800 passenger -300ERs flying and with -300ER production having launched in 2004, the oldest examples are just now reaching the age ‘sweet spot’ – about 15-18 years old – for conversion. A -300ER P2F would also offer commonality benefits with the -200/-300 passenger aircraft remaining in widespread operation.”

Boeing’s Crabtree is clear on the 777F, “As it exists today, the 777F has the lowest tonne/mile costs of any large twin-engined freighter. We delivered our first airplane in February 2009, so it’s only been in service a decade and is still a new airplane in freighter terms. We’ve continuously invested in it, including a block change of several aerodynamic improvements in the third quarter of 2016, making it even more efficient. Last year we sold 45 777Fs, a little over 20% of the 217 total sold to date.”

Crabtree continues and says there are almost 600 aircrafts flying in the large widebody freighter segment: “We define that as including any aircraft capable of carrying 80 tonnes or more of useful load. Those types include the An-124, carrying around 120 tonnes; the MD-11 [90 tonnes]” the 747, now benchmarked as the -8F, carrying 137 tonnes; and the 777F [102 tonnes]. He says of those aircrafts, at the end of March 2019, only 42% represent in-production products – 747-8F and 777F – and Boeing sees an opportunity for the renewal of the MD-11 and older-generation 747 fleets. So how will that opportunity be exploited?  “We studied freighter configurations as part of the 777X development cycle, but a decision to do something on the 777X platform has not been made and would be a long way off. Right now, our customers are demanding the 777F and we’re doing our best to meet that demand,” Crabtree responds.


777 conversions

About P2F conversions, Whaley reckons: “The feedstock for a 777-300ER P2F programme is too expensive; IBA believes the 777-300ER will become financially viable circa 2023, once the number entering the secondary market increases and the 777X is in passenger service. From a sufficiency point of view, there is and will be plenty of feedstock, though some will inevitably remain within the passenger sector, either through operators retaining the type longer than originally anticipated, or aircraft finding new operators within the secondary market. The 777-200ER values are now at the point where they are just suitable for P2F conversion, but feedstock may be a little more limited due to the aircraft’s age and the utilisation of some examples.”

The OEM has done well with its Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) programmes and Whaley describes a Boeing 777-300ERBCF as “…a very likely possibility”. At last year’s Farnborough International Airshow, Boeing Global Services announced studies and discussions surrounding the potential for a 777-300ER P2F, centring around whether the 777-300ERBCF can complement the 777F.

Whaley also notes: “IAI’s Bedek division has shown interest in a 777 P2F. It acquired a 777-200ER fuselage a number of years ago to examine how it would go about the conversion process and identify any technical challenges. Boeing has shifted its focus from the 777-200ER to the -300ER and it therefore seems likely that IAI will be the only conversion supplier offering a 777-200ER P2F. It is not unlikely that IAI will also offer a 777-300ER, since it is well versed in Boeing P2F programmes, having offered 737 Classic and 737-700/800, 747-400 and 767-200/300 conversions.”

Establishing a P2F programme for an airframe as large as the 777-300ER will be no trivial undertaking. Whaley explains that establishing any freighter conversion programme would be a lengthy process, costly in both finance and manpower. He feels conversion suppliers catering for the widebody market are generally larger and more experienced, with IAI and ST Aerospace the only providers offering non-OEM backed Boeing conversions: “Any 777-300ER programme is expected to be among the most challenging P2F conversions to date, not only due to airframe size, but also the technical challenges, including replacing the floor.”


Ultimately, the decision on how to proceed comes down to balancing programme costs against the potential -300ER P2F market size. Without entering a complex analysis, Diamond says the fleet of large freighters in operation totals well over 550 aircraft, including new-build 747-8Fs and 777Fs, new-build and converted 747-400F/ERF/BCF/SFs, and new-build and converted MD-11Fs. “The wave of airlines parking freighters in favour of passenger aircraft seems to have passed, so it may be safe to presume that most of them will need to be replaced at some point over the next 20 years, starting with the older MD-11s and 747-400s. There will also be a need for additional freighters to accommodate future demand. Boeing is forecasting that the global air cargo market will grow 4.2% per year over the next 20 years.”


The last word on P2F conversions ought to go to Boeing: “We constantly assess our platforms from production and converted freighter perspectives and we’ve looked at the 777-300ER as a BCF,” Crabtree says. “We continue to look at it and, based on conversations with customers and market demand, we’ll make a decision at the appropriate time, but none has yet been made.”


Crabtree admits it is a “perfect candidate” for P2F conversion, with greater volume than a 777F, although its weight-carrying capability hasn’t yet been finalised. “We’ve been building it since 2004 and it has a consistent GE90 engine/airframe combination, but the key advantage of a conversion over a production freighter is acquisition cost because the asset has already depreciated. But you have to invest in the conversion and benchmark how well it performs relative to a production freighter. The 777F still has the lowest trip cost of any large freighter and cost per tonne carried is on a par with the 747F. Against that backdrop, a P2F launch decision is some way off.”

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