Bombardier and AEI gauge market interest for updated CRJ200 freighter mod

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Aeronautical Engineers (AEI) and Bombardier are gauging market interest for an updated Bombardier CRJ200 conversion programme that involves outfitting the aircraft with a large cargo door.

Miami-based AEI would cut the 2.39m (94in) by 1.96m (77in) cargo door into the fuselage's left side, allowing operators to load customised pallets of cargo into the aircraft as an alternative to the lengthier process of bulk loading the aircraft.

The converted CRJ200 aircraft would be able to carry a maximum payload of 6,080kg (6.7t) and it would be outfitted with a cargo loading system manufactured by Ancra. The main deck of the aircraft would be transformed into a Class E cargo compartment capable of carrying pallets, containers or bulk material.

AEI would install a hydraulic actuation and latching system into the aircraft to power the cargo door, with pressure actuated via an electric pump. A control and manual pump would also be installed in the aircraft, as well as a 9g rigid crash and smoke barrier.

British Columbia-based MRO Cascade Aerospace redelivered the first CRJ200 freighter modified with its package freighter conversion kit in 2007 to West Air Sweden, which now operates as West Atlantic. However, that modification did not include creating the large cargo door-a feature that Bombardier says airline customers want to see.

Cascade's CRJ200 freighter conversion maintains the passenger main door, which measures 1.8m high and 0.9m wide. This version also has a baggage door that measures almost 0.9m high and 1.1m wide.

Demand for this original freighter conversion has been slow since its introduction in 2007, with the timing of the economic downturn partially to blame, Bombardier says. Only five CRJ200 freighters have been outfitted since Cascade started offering the package freighter kit, says Rod Sheridan, vice-president, customer finance, Bombardier Commercial Aircraft.

However, the airframer says it has been seeing an uptick in new demand for conversion kits just in the few weeks that would double that number. About five more Bombardier CRJ200 Cascade freighter conversion kits are pending, says Sheridan, boosting the number of CRJ200 freighters in operation up to 10 aircraft when the modifications are complete.

Cascade Aerospace agrees that the interest in the uptake for the freighters has "definitely increased."

The renewed demand stems from the CRJ200s becoming more financially attractive than in years past for the purpose of being turned into a freighter, says Sheridan. He says that now is the right time for the CRJ200 conversions because of the value of the aircraft as they reach an age range of 14 to 16 years and start coming off of leases.

"The value is in the right spot," says Sheridan. He says the updated conversion would allow operators to more efficiently load the aircraft. Bulk loading the packet freighter version may take operators between forty-five minutes to an hour, he says. With the large cargo door, that time could be as short as 10 minutes if the operator loads the aircraft with customized pallets. Bulk loading would remain an option with the proposed large cargo door modification.

The CRJ200 with the large cargo door would be most efficient on "long, thin" routes and fit into a niche market, says Sheridan. While AEI expects to pursue FAA certification for the freighter if it invests in the modification, Sheridan says he expects the aircraft to be more widely flown in emerging markets such as Russia and China rather than on mainstream cargo routes. AEI also hopes to gain approvals in Brazil and Europe.

Sheridan says that the aircraft range will also be an attractive selling point-he sees the aircraft with the door modification traveling up to about 3,700km (2,000nm). The package freighter version of the aircraft ranges from 3,570km for the ER range aircraft and 4,200km for the LR version.

"We have seen a lot of people asking for not only the size, the capacity, but the range that the airplane will do," says Sheridan.

If the Bombardier CRJ200 large cargo door modification comes to fruition, the maximum payload of 6,731kg would be down slightly from that of the existing package freighter conversion, which amounts to 7,161kg. The cargo compartment volume would also be slightly lower at 52.78 m3 (1,864 ft3) compared to 53.1 m3 (1,876 ft3).

The maximum fuel load for both type of CRJ200 freighter conversions is 6,489kg, and maximum takeoff weights are the same for both--on the CRJ200ER, it is 23,133kg, and for the LR, its 24,040kg.