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The 737’s prospects as a cargo aircraft could be improved following Telair International’s certification for its new loading system.
In a year of tight capacity, the innovation could prove pivotal.
The Flexible Loading System (FLS) is compatible with both 737 freighters and with passenger aircraft, allowing operators to carry containerised cargo in their lower hold.
Chief executive Anders Helmner said the system was “an industry game-changer”. The company plans to start working with customers on installing the system in the second quarter of this year.
Launch customer lessor Gecas said it would offer FLS on all 737-800 freighter conversions entering service over the next 12 months.
The new year has seen something of a renaissance for the 737 as a freighter, driven in part by the growth in ecommerce volumes. Last year, Gecas committed to converting 30 737-800s to freighters, with Ethiopian Cargo this year announcing it had signed an agreement for two of the aircraft.
The FLS includes three components: an onboard conveyer system for loading and unloading bulk cargo some 40% lighter than existing variants; new containers for use with the conveyer on the 737; and a powered doorway ball mat for transferring the containers on and off the aircraft, and to and from standard ground-handling equipment.
Manager for cargo aircraft at Gecas Richard Greener said the system not only improved efficiency, but added “flexibility”, especially for combination, express and e-commerce operators.
“The new system enables them to interline the Telair containers and reduce bulk loading times,” said Mr Greener. “FLS allows Telair’s containers to be preloaded and screened at the cargo sort and brought onboard the aircraft using existing bulk loading equipment.”
Flight Ascend Consultancy said the 737 accounted for some 60% of all narrowbody freighter conversions placed in 2017. Head of market analysis Chris Seymour said: “737 conversions held up in 2017, as this is a good freighter and there is reasonable availability.
“The main narrowbody change was that FedEx completed its 757 conversions, bringing down the 757 total.”
Among the customers for last year’s 737 conversions were ASL Airlines, which took six, and West Atlantic, which received four 737s.
“This year will be good for 737 Classics and 757s, although since feedstock is running out it may be the last good year,” said Mr Seymour. “Nonetheless, 737NGs will get more traction in 2018… initial customers will mainly be lessors and Chinese operators.”
According to Boeing, 745 new 737 aircraft orders are on its books.