Boeing will shift control of its fleet of four modified 747-400 large cargo freighters or 'Dreamlifters' to Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings as part of a compensation deal in the wake of delays incurred by the airframer's 747-8 programme, sources close to the agreement confirm.
Atlas would not "confirm nor deny" that the nine-year Dreamlifter deal is part of compensation package for its delayed order for 747-8F aircraft, now scheduled to begin delivery in early 2011.
The carrier emphasises that the outsourcing model which Atlas operates under creates a "cost-effective" operation for operating the Dreamlifters on worldwide operations.
Atlas, which is the largest customer for the 747-8F, holds orders for 12 of the 76 freighter aircraft Boeing has on order.
Atlas originally planned to take delivery six 747-8Fs in 2010 and the remaining six in 2011. Now deliveries will be completed during the first half of 2013, says Ed McGarvey, vice president and treasurer of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings.
Boeing has incurred more than a year of delays on its 747-8 programme after design changes and supply chain woes stalled the development of the company's largest aircraft.
Boeing declines to "publicly share the ins-and-outs" of the contract, but is not offering an explicit denial that the deal was part of a compensation package related to the 747-8F.
As part of the operational agreement, Boeing will retain ownership of the Dreamlifter fleet, and handle certain costs such as fuel, while Atlas pilots and crews will operate the aircraft.
Atlas says at this point it doesn't believe it will need to add any additional pilots to operate the Dreamlifters, as the aircraft is largely based on the 747-400. The company currently employs roughly 650 747-400 pilots, but does acknowledge some crew will need "differences training" to operate the modified Dreamlifter.
Starting in September, Atlas will assume control of the Dreamlifter cargo flights from Evergreen International Airlines, which won a contract from Boeing for the operation in December 2005. Evergreen inaugurated its Dreamlifter flights in August 2007.
Evergreen was formally notified of the contract cancellation on 2 March, but Boeing offered no explanation for the abrupt termination, says Tim Wahlberg, chairman of holding company Evergreen International Aviation.
He adds that Boeing informed the airline of a "best value" review it was conducting as a part of normal business, and to "not worry about it" as Evergreen was "doing a great job".
"I can't even tell you how disappointed we are," says Wahlberg, who adds that 75 pilots, mechanics and ground crew supporting the Dreamlifter operations will be difficult to retain.
Wahlberg says Evergreen, which achieved 93% on-time performance with the Dreamlifter, will bid to operate the aircraft again at the end of Atlas' nine-year contract.
Wahlberg adds that Evergreen beat Atlas Air during the initial 2005 bid for the contract.
At the time Evergreen assumed control in 2007, the contract life was 20 years, renewable every five years over the life of the 787 programme.
The four aircraft, which were specially modified in Taiwan from passenger 747-400 aircraft, are the backbone of the 787's global supply chain, ferrying over-sized structural components and tooling between Asia, Europe and the USA to integration and final assembly sites.