An A321 being converted

In a rare event for airlines in the Covid-19 era, Qantas took delivery of the first A321 freighter this week, at a time when more than 100 passenger planes are parked in the Australian outback.

The aircraft – the only aircraft Qantas is adding to its fleet this year – was delivered by aviation services firm Vallair, which had been the first out of the starting blocks to launch a conversion programme for the type.

Vallair CEO Gregoire Lebigot is bullish on the latest addition to the range. He said: “The A321 is the future of freighter conversions.

“Not only is this freighter variant better for the environment, due to its 20% reduction in fuel burn, but it offers enhanced performance across range, payload and volume with a unique capacity for 14 container positions in the upper deck and 10 more on the containerised lower cargo deck.

“And thanks to its fly-by-wire technology, the A321 is more advanced and the aircraft is still in production.”

Interest in converted freighters has been strong, according to rival manufacturer Boeing, on course to deliver 21 converted B737 freighters this year and aiming for an output of 35 next year.

It is also looking to add a fourth, possibly a fifth, conversion line for B767 cargo planes in 2021.

Vallair has reported lively interest in its A321 freighters. On 15 October, SmartLynx signed an agreement  for two converted A321Fs, and a week later GlobalX signed a letter of intent for ten, due to come on stream in the spring of 2023.

Projections on freighter needs point to demand for about 1,500 narrow-body cargo planes over the next decade, all of them converted former passenger aircraft. Vallair management estimates demand for A321 freighters during the period could be around 400.

With 14 pallet positions on the main deck and the capability to carry 27.9 tonnes over 2,300 nautical miles, the A321 is at the large end of the narrow-body market, offering significantly more capacity than the B737-800. It is closer to the B757, which can take one more pallet on the main deck, and is widely regarded as its replacement.

Prior to the pandemic and the surge in e-commerce, some pundits predicted that 757 conversions would be approaching the end of their viability, but Brian McCarthy, VP aircraft trading at conversion specialist Precision Aircraft Solutions, sees plenty of life in the programme.

“I think we will see many conversions over the next two years despite the exaggerated statements from converters suggesting that the B757 is nearing the end of its run as a freighter,” he said.

Mr McCarthy pointed to strong demand and ample feedstock. American Airlines has retired its B757 contingent and 19 out of these 24 planes are “absolutely solid conversion candidates”, he said, adding that other attractive 757s are also becoming available.

“We still have over 300 757s in operation, and if we consider just 150 available as feedstock, this represents an abundance of aircraft to keep the 757 on track for years. This remaining feedstock also represents an abundance of spare parts and engine LLPs,” he continued.

On the demand side the forecasts for capacity needs to distribute Covid-19 vaccine suggest major carriers will be using supplemental lift to cover capacity shortages, he said.

“This demand is expected to continue for two years and does not even consider the demand emerging from this year’s peak and the lift demand stemming from a substantial proliferation of e-commerce services.”

And with ample feedstock and strong demand, Precision can crank up its output to 20 conversions a year, he added.

Having so far concentrated on the B757, Precision is adding a second type to its portfolio with  an A321 programme in collaboration with ATSG.

On 3 October, Precision’s first A321 freighter carried out its first flight and, according to Gary Warner, president of 321 Precision Conversions, all systems functioned “perfectly as designed”.

And Mr McCarthy reported lively interest in the new type: “And this seems to be escalating with the realities of the Covid crisis widening with a tough winter coming. I think owners and investors are coming to terms with many fleet types facing a fall in value, as well as an unprecedented availability of feed stock.

“We are in discussions with several groups – air operators as well as leasing firms and investors sticking their toe in the conversion pond. Many entities are grappling with the realities of the market and exploring and coming to terms with the idea of ‘speculative’ freighter development,” he said.

As with the B757, feedstock (which used to be a major impediment for both types) is no longer an issue for A321 conversions, he noted.

“Values are falling and Covid realities are suggesting an abundance of feedstock for the foreseeable future,” he said.