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Narrow horizons

A growing Chinese middle class means more demand for express services – and operators will look to narrowbody conversions to meet it. Kerry Reals reports

Demand for converted narrowbody aircraft is set to skyrocket over the coming two decades, spearheaded by China and its rapidly-growing domestic express market.


Both Airbus and Boeing have launched single-aisle passenger-to-freighter conversion programmes, and conversion specialists are confident of a buoyant market for their services as the introduction of the re-engined A320Neo and 737 Max helps to ripen older narrowbody variants for conversion.


Earlier this year Boeing launched its Next-Generation 737-800 converted freighter programme, with orders and commitments for up to 55 conversions from seven customers, including three from China – YTO Airlines, China Postal Airlines and SF Airlines. The first 737-800BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter) is expected to be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2017.


The 737-800BCF carries up to 23.9 tonnes of cargo and has a range of almost 2,000nm. Twelve pallet positions – 11 standard pallets and one half-pallet – provide 141.5m3 of cargo space on the main deck. Conversions of the 737-800 will be carried out by Boeing Shanghai Aviation Services, although additional conversion locations are also under consideration.


Similarly, in mid-2015 Airbus signed an agreement with Singapore-based ST Aerospace to offer passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion solutions for its A320/A321 aircraft, citing 'significant market demand of more than 600 aircraft over the next 20 years' for P2F conversions in the small freighter segment. The A320/A321 P2F converted freighter will be marketed and managed by Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW).


Boeing forecasts that over the next two decades 1,020 standard-body freighter conversions will be required to satisfy market demand, which it says will be stronger in emerging markets, particularly China.


“Demand for newer-generation standard-body freighters is especially strong in many of the world’s emerging markets, which are experiencing rapid growth in express freight and new domestic cargo networks,” says Kurt Kraft, Vice President of Modification and Conversion Services at Boeing. “The China express market is forecast to be among the fastest growing segments of world air cargo markets, with the rise in e-commerce being a driving factor.”


According to the Boeing World Air Cargo Forecast, world air cargo traffic will grow 4.7% per year over the next 20 years, with domestic China and intra-Asia markets expanding by 6.7% and 6.5% per year, respectively.


“China’s domestic express market in particular is experiencing exceptionally strong growth,” says Kraft. “Between 2010 and 2015, the average annual growth rate for domestic express shipments in China was 55% and revenue has grown nearly 40%.”


Stephan Hollmann, Chief Executive of PACAVI Group – which is working towards obtaining a supplemental type certificate (STC) for A320/A321 conversions – agrees that China’s growing e-commerce sector will provide a fertile market for converted narrowbody freighters. >>

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