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In the Airbus A321 size category, the freighter segment has historically relied on Boeing products for capacity, specifically, the very popular Boeing 757.

 

Grégoire Lebigot, President and Chief Executive Officer at Vallair, the cargo conversion specialists, is aware that for the most recent converted freighters Boeing products stand out over Airbus, when looking at the narrowbody freighter segment.

“We do acknowledge, however, that no viable candidates were available to match Boeing’s offering on the narrowbody side. We believe Airbus was simply focused on the passenger market at a period when the market saw unprecedented demand,” he declares.

Vallair sees a lot of potential and value in the A321 P2F programme, not only as a replacement for the B757F, but also as a key industry solution to meet the air freight market’s projected growth – in the express and e-commerce segments.

Lebigot sees a dedicated role for each narrowbody aircraft in the market, each corresponding to their individual characteristics and that includes as well the B737-800F that Vallair is also including to its conversion programme.

“Nevertheless, the A321 P2F will be the first aircraft to introduce a containerised lower deck on the narrowbody freighter segment, which is a significant game changer for any hub and spoke operation,” Lebigot reveals.

He expects air cargo operators will be carefully reviewing their capacity and network development plans upon the introduction of the A321 P2F. “For us, there were a number of factors that drove our engagement in the conversion of the A321.”

Firstly, he highlights feedstock availability and residual values of the feedstock pre-conversion. The second factor was the initiative taken by various parties gearing up to take on the conversion.

Lebigot explains that Vallair was approached by A321 Precision Conversion with an ambitious and innovative project for the conversion of the aircraft via a supplemental type certificate (STC). In parallel, EFW decided to relaunch the A321 and A320 conversion programmes, confirming that assessment of the time being right.

“Another factor which drove our decision was the growing trend of the air freight market shifting towards smaller capacity, the growing market share held by integrators and the growing number of actors in the overnight express and mail routes,” he says.

Availability of parts, fuel efficiency and other operational benefits associated with the A320 family nicely rounded the overall picture, as these translate into real selling points for operators, Lebigot highlights. “However, the one fundamental driver behind our decision is the confidence we have in the market’s readiness for a sustainable newcomer that can provide solid airlift capacity for many years to come.”

At the time of this writing, Vallair was on the verge of making a significant announcement presumably regarding its A321 conversion at the Singapore Air Show. “The delivery of the A321 prototype is only a few months away, and the Singapore Air Show provides us with an excellent platform to market the product and start placing it with early adopters in the market,” Lebigot comments.

EFW also plans to announce a launch customer for the A321 -200 conversion in Singapore. “The first aircraft will fly in September or October 2019,” discloses Wolfgang Schmid, Vice President Sales and Marketing at EFW.

Schmid thinks residuals are still fairly high for the A321 and remarks that it is still a very popular airplane on the passenger market but the oldest units in service have now clocked up around 20 years.

“We see some fleet coming out just at the time when we need them and some of them will be replaced by the Neos, so this will help us feed the line,” says Schmid.

With the A321, Schmid is convinced the aircraft is one of the best made for a freighter – having more containerised than the much loved 757. “In terms of payload, a 757 can hold 35 tons but they normally fly with 23 or 24 tons of packages, or maybe less, which means they max out far below their capability of payload. The A321 in contrary would max out by volume with 27 tons of payload and guess how much payload this aircraft has? It has 27 tons of payload, which means it’s the absolute perfect fit. With the A321 you fly the exact aircraft that you need to transport that volume,” Schmid indicates.

It’s clear the A321 P2F is the possible replacement for the B757, and the A320 as a challenger to the B737 Classics. An initial attempt on the A320 in 2010/11 failed to take off, perhaps due to bad timing, but today, it seems the time is right.