Boeing could decide this year to launch a cargo conversion programme for the 737 Next Generation in anticipation of a recovery in the air freight market, and is also studying a conversion of the 777-200ER.
The airframer sees strong long-term demand for converted freighters, forecasting some 1,450 conversions over the next 20 years. “The predominance of those deliveries will be standard-body freighters,” says Jim Edgar, regional director of cargo marketing at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Boeing’s forecast puts “standard-body” (ie narrowbody) freighter demand at 940 units over the next 20 years, and it is evaluating a launch of a programme for the 737NG to allow a converted freighter to enter service in around three years’ time as the cargo market recovers.
The conversion market has been sluggish in recent years due to the downturn in the cargo sector combined with the large number of freighters available, but Boeing expects this situation to improve within three years.
“Obviously if you have an overcapacity situation, then sales [of conversions] are going to reflect that. We expect that demand and available capacity will be back balance around the 2016/2017 timeframe,” says Edgar.
There have been a number of retirements and aircraft temporarily put into storage, which is helping to gradually redress the balance.
“We’re seriously studying [a 737NG programme], talking to customers and looking at the issues. Cost is a big consideration – we’ve got to be competitive,” says Edgar. “I would expect a decision probably this year. I guess [service entry could be] two-to-three years after that decision.”
Edgar says that with the oldest 737NGs having been delivered over 15 years ago, some will soon start to become eligible for conversion in terms of age. “They would be a natural replacement for a lot of the standard-bodies in service,” he says.
Flightglobal’s Ascend Online database shows there are over 4,700 737NGs in service, of which some 450 are at least 15 years old and a further 1,140 are in the 10-14 year bracket.
Boeing is still evaluating how it will structure the programme, with it offering third-party data-licensed conversions or in-house Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) methods for existing programmes.
Meanwhile, with the oldest 777s now almost 20 years old, the manufacturer is also evaluating a BCF conversion programme for the widebody twinjet. Drivers behind a decision to launch this programme – and one for the 737NG – are a combination of reaching the right price point for feedstock, the cost of conversation and a sufficient number of launch customers and units, says Edgar.
“The most likely candidate for conversion would be the 777-200ER platform. Our studies indicate we would be looking at around an 80t payload for a 777-200ER conversion,” he adds.
Boeing already offers a new-build 777 Freighter based on the much heavier -200LR platform, which has a payload in excess of 100t.
Edgar says the 777 conversion would be “a pretty extensive modification” because of all the composites used. For example, all the floor beams would have to be replaced with stronger ones.
Ascend Online shows that there are currently around 500 777-200 and -200ERs in service, of which 430 are older than 10 years – including 230 in the 15-20 year range.