US passenger carrier Eastern Airlines is to add significant cargo capacity into the market next year, following its decision to ‘semi-convert’ 33 passenger 777s.

Following STC approval, the first two aircraft, already undergoing conversion at the carrier’s sister maintenance facility in Kansas, should be operational by January, with a further aircraft each month arriving at the carrier up to August. The rest will be arriving in due course, said the carrier.

“We would rather have hit the peak season, but we see the current demand continuing into 2022,” said CEO Steve Harfst.

It’s a bold move, but one which should see Eastern beat rivals to additional capacity. It has had freighter ambitions for some time, but despite having two 767s ripe for conversion, the earliest date available at a 767 conversion facility is the end of next year.

“It was not immediate enough for us, in the current market,” explained Mr Harfst.

However, the carrier’s proprietor, Kenneth Woolley, who also owns aircraft lessor KMW Leasing, found tens of 777s parked in the desert, offering the airline an opportunity.

“They were great conversion candidates, but the only 777-300ER conversion programme, Israel Aerospace Industries, has no availability until 2023,” explained Mike Duggan, Eastern’s director of international cargo business development. “So we decided to do our own conversion.”

He added: “We realised we didn’t need the freighters to be able to carry horses, or cars, or other maindeck cargo. We needed them to be able to carry e-commerce and express; volumetric lightweight shipments that don’t need a cargo door or reinforced floor.”

The aircraft will be converted in three stages, with a small cargo door coming in the final stage, in early to mid-2023. In the meantime, the aircraft will have the galleys and toilets removed, and a smoke barrier installed. “It’s relatively easy to do,” said Mr Duggan, “and the first stage can be completed next year.”

While ‘passenger freighters’ can carry about 150 to 180 cubic metres, the 777s will have more than 300 cubic metres of capacity on the maindeck and about 440 in total – a payload of 63-65 tonnes. The second conversion stage will see roller decks installed on the maindeck and bespoke ULDs – smaller than the traditional size – will be able to slide in.

Unlike ‘preighters’, the large amount of capacity will allow the airline to profit, even as rates decline.

However, as any handler or congested airport knows, the challenge initially will be loading via a passenger door, a time-consuming process which, in the current market, has been temporarily banned in some particularly busy hubs.

“We are talking to handlers, and some are more geared up to it than others,” said Mr Duggan. “The biggest problem will be finding the handling manpower and resources – it will all come down to manpower.”

Of the 35 aircraft Eastern is acquiring, two 777-300ERs will be used for passengers, while 17 777-200ERs, six 777-300s and 10 777-200s are headed for conversion.

But while Eastern has its eye firmly on e-commerce and express cargo, it has “no intention” of becoming an e-commerce company.

“We will serve the capacity demands of the major e-commerce and express players,” said Mr Harfst. “We will provide capacity and lift, and are in talks with several.”

Eastern is also expecting some general cargo, and will use its expertise in Central and South America to take advantage of the flower trade.

“We will maintain some of the passenger temperature-control, which will be enough to keep the maindeck at the right temperature in some environments,” explained Mr Duggan.

The carrier expects to see global demand for its capacity and is working with HAE Group, which has a total cargo management contract with the carrier.

Eastern will also do some of its own flying, expanding its existing belly cargo services, which currently offer 10 passenger 767 bellies. But as a CRAF carrier, it has had to interrupt its operations in order to repatriate people leaving Afghanistan.

“We have been very busy doing multiple evacuations from Afghanistan, from both Qatar and from Ramstein US air base in Germany, to Washington DC and Philadelphia,” said Mr Harfst. “It has had an impact on our belly product, but it is something Eastern is very proud to do.”

But he is keen to fully join the cargo market as a freighter operator – even if the airline doesn’t quite catch the peak season.

“With record high ocean freight rates and port congestion, and the fact that air freight rates have only doubled in the past year, air cargo is now a lot more competitive,” he said. “We can see demand for the next two years, and our conversion plan puts us ahead of others waiting for conversion slots.

“But it is certainly a challenge, both commercially and operationally, to go from 12 aircraft to nearly 50 in such a short time-span. But it is exciting.”

It won’t be the first time a US passenger carrier has joined the express market. Last year, low-cost carrier Sun Country Airlines began working for Amazon, subleasing and operating 10 737-800Fs on behalf of the e-retailer.

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