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Regional rise

The rise of e-commerce is just one of the factors driving demand for regional freighter aircraft, as Ian Putzger finds out

Aeronautical Engineers Inc. (AEI) is opening the throttle on its CRJ200 conversion programme. Barely a year after the conversion specialist obtained FAA certification for its CRJ200 SF, it is working on its fourth conversion of the type and ramping up its output.

“We’ll be up to five conversion lines in December. It’s never gone that quickly before,” says Bob Convey, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “We are in full production on that and our order book is strong.”

He also hopes to speed up the conversion process. Currently this takes 130 days to complete, but Convey hopes to get closer to 100 days.

AEI has over 40 orders for the CRJ200 so far. Convey is pleasantly surprised by the strong demand.

“It was a crapshoot,” he says, looking back on the decision to take on CRJ200s and turn them into freighters with a payload of 6,731kg, each configured to accommodate eight pallets. It has a range of 1,000 miles.

With $1.85 million going to the conversion process, which includes a large 94in by 77in main deck cargo door, a buyer can expect to pay $4.5-$5 million for one CRJ200 SF.

With CRJ200s rapidly coming out of passenger service, the aircraft seemed bound for the scrapyard, for the most part, until AEI developed the conversion programme. With its focus on 737 conversions (besides some MD-80 work), this was meant to be a stopgap for the company, to bridge the time between the end of the 737-400 programme and the start of the 737-800 conversion venture. In any event, the 737-400 programme is still surprisingly strong, and demand for the CRJ has exceeded expectations.

“Next year I think we’ll turn out 12 CRJs,” says Convey. With about 1,000 aircraft for potential feedstock, this programme could run for quite some time.

With its payload and range, the CRJ200 sits at the high end of the regional freighter scene. The turboprop market, where most activity is concentrated, has not seen the kind of demand that AEI is enjoying. According to statistics from Cargo Facts, the needle on the freighter count in the 4-9 ton bracket barely moved in the past couple of years. By June of this year, 191 turboprop freighters with payloads of 4 tons or more were in action worldwide, up from 187 cargo aircraft two years earlier.

More than half of the freighters in this category are ATR 42s and 72s. With maximum payloads of 6,613kg and 8,904kg respectively, they command the top end of the turboprop segment. “The ATRs fill that niche darn well,” comments Tim Komberec, President of Empire Airlines, which operates a mix of ATR 42s, 72s and Cessna 208 Caravans.

He adds that ATR 72-600s are coming up in large numbers, which guarantees ample feedstock for some time.

Next down the line in terms of numbers are Saab 340Fs, of which 37 were in service this past summer. Unlike the ATRs and the Fokker 50 (which follows with 12 units in action), this aircraft is not equipped with a large cargo door.

At the smaller end of the market, nothing matches the Cessna Caravan, according to Komberec. “The Caravan is a workhorse. We’ve been flying them for 30 years,” he comments. “At some point there’s probably going to be room for something larger in that area, but I haven’t seen anything jump out that looks attractive.”

Stan Bernstein, President of the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association, points out that the Caravan is the only turboprop that is produced in a freighter version. “Typically regional freighters for the most part are ex-passenger planes,” he says. “Utilisation is low – you do one flight a night, so you cannot amortise a large capital cost.”

Empire flies some 300 of the aircraft on contract for FedEx, making them likely the largest commercial user of Caravan freighters. For that matter, a large chunk of the regional freighter activity is for integrators and postal operators, all the way up to the new cargo aircraft in the mix. Two of the first takers of the CRJ200 SF are operators that fly for FedEx. >>

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