Boeing expects to secure 777BCF launch customer in early 2011

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Boeing is confident of securing a launch customer for its 777 Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) programme by mid 2011, and expects the 777-200ERBCF will be launched ahead of the 777-200BCF.

The manufacturer began offering the 777-200BCF and 777-200ERBCF in the second quarter of this year. The 777BCF programme manager, Ralph Kramer, says Boeing has since been talking to seven or eight airlines about acquiring 777BCFs. But securing a launch customer in 2010, which Boeing last year said it was aiming for, is no longer likely.

"We're thinking now first half, maybe even first quarter of next year, would be launch," Kramer tells ATI and Flightglobal.

But he cautions that "it could go later. It's all about finding the launch customer. You don't do one of these - you need a significant quantity."

Kramer says one big customer or a few smaller customers could give Boeing the quantity it needs to formally launch the programme. FedEx, which along with UPS would be big enough to persuade Boeing to launch the 777BCF with just one customer, confirmed last year that it was evaluating the programme.

Kramer says FedEx is only one of several carriers interested. "We've had people express interest in the 777. There are two we are really working with and the next sub-circle would probably be five or six," he explains.

He categorises the interest in both these groups as "serious". After that there are several other airlines and leasing companies which have expressed "general interest" in the programme.

Kramer says at this point there are not any leasing companies that are considered potential near-term customers. "GECAS and some others are interested. They are looking more down the road."

Boeing previously indicated that the smaller and older 777-200 could be converted ahead of the 777-200ER. Kramer now says the -200ER "seems to be really gaining traction to a point that's what we are really focusing on". But he adds that Boeing is not dropping the non-ER and is still finishing compiling load analysis data on the 777-200BCF.

"We should be ready to go with (the non-ER) even if it came first but the ER seems to be the more market interest at this time," Kramer explains.

Kramer says data so far shows the 777-200ERBCF coming in at a payload of about 81,646kg (180,000lbs) and a range of about 4,000nm. Assuming it can secure a launch customer in 2011 as now anticipated, the 777-200ERBCF will enter service in 2014.

Kramer says Boeing aims to select a conversion shop for the 777BCF next year, about the same time a launch customer is announced or slightly later. He says Boeing issued a request for information last month to "about a dozen" aircraft maintenance firms with passenger-to-freighter conversion capabilities. Responses are due back "later this fall".

As in the case with the 747-400BCF programme, Boeing plans to sell the 777-200ERBCF as a completed conversion and as a conversion kit. For conversion customers, the modification will be done at the shop or shops it selects. For those airlines that elect to buy the kit, they can install the mod at their own maintenance facilities with support from Boeing.

Kramer says Boeing does not expect to offer a conversion programme for the 777-300 as only about 60 of the type were produced. Conversions for the newest 777 models, the -300ER and -200LR, are still at least several years away given they only entered service during the last decade.

For the 777-200, Kramer says availability is limited as there were only 88 aircraft produced, two of which have already been parted out. Of the remaining 86, he says 52 are not in play as they are currently operated by United, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines. United has no intentions of replacing its 777-200s while ANA and JAL operate their 777-200s domestically, which makes them unattractive for conversion given their high cycles.

Boeing expects more near-term availability for the 777-200ER. This type is much common than the 777-200 and Boeing specifically sees near-term potential on converting some of the oldest 86 aircraft.