Converting turboprops and small jets into Class E package freighters has become a lucrative business in recent years as older aircraft are made available by airlines switching to modern types.
However, the global recession has had a major effect on large freight operators, with a consequent downturn in demand for small feeder operations. Regional airlines also appear to have postponed upgrading their passenger fleets, resulting in fewer aircraft for conversions to cargo.
The conversion of regional airliners from passenger to cargo configuration is still a core business for San Antonio, Texas-based M7 Aerospace. As it holds the type certificates, the US firm has for some time been the sole organisation converting Fairchild Metros and Merlins to cargo using service bulletins, and can also offer Dornier 328 conversions, but its main business in this sector involves the larger ATR regional turboprops.
The militarised BAe 146M version of the regional jet is a focus of marketing efforts. Picture: BAE Systems
M7 has to date completed 50 conversions of ATR 42 and ATR 72 turboprops. After removing all passenger amenities from the cabin including the sidewalls, the conversion to cargo entails floor strengthening and optional installation of a continuous rail cargo net, a new interior structure for securing cargo in flight and the addition of a conveyor system to facilitate cargo handling, modification and reinforcement of doors and door surrounds, and provision of a smoke detection system.
Passenger windows are plugged to reduce maintenance. The majority of conversions involved the ATR 42, but the demand has now shifted to the larger ATR 72.
The British Aerospace ATP has also proven a popular choice as a freighter, under which guise it has achieved greater success than it did as a passenger aircraft. Of the 62 aircraft built, 44 have been so converted. BAE Systems offers two conversion packages: one involving the insertion of a large freight door, the other as a bulk-load variant, to which cargo is loaded through the passenger doors.
JETSTREAM 41 STALL
BAE has completed a service bulletin for the conversion of the 29-seat Jetstream 41 into a bulk-loaded freighter, but with not a single aircraft on the market, this programme has stalled for the time being.
The relaunch of the four-engined 146QT Quiet Trader, conversions of which have been contracted to Aerostar in Romania, has also faltered. The company converted one -200 and one -300 model on a speculative basis, but has not been able to place the smaller of the two.
The -300QT was delivered to Cobham Aviation Services in Australia for use on energy support work, but any future conversions will only be undertaken upon receipt of orders. Efforts to promote a militarised version of the 146 - the 146M - have been renewed.
Dutch Fokker conversion specialist Aircraft Conversions is confident of a growing demand for cargo conversions of the Fokker 50 turboprop, which first flew 25 years ago. Some 150 aircraft are still in passenger service worldwide, providing a ready pool of aircraft for possible conversions. The company is using its Denver, Colorado-based US partner Straight Flight Conversions, which is able to carry out four conversions a year, but hopes to double this rate.
It is also evaluating other conversion centres with a view to offering modifications in Europe and Asia, where the bulk of the aircraft are operated. The first Fokker50Freighter in E-Class configuration and with a large forward cargo door on the port side was delivered at the end of 2007, to MiniLiner in Italy, which so far has received four out of a total of 10 on order.
Canadian MRO specialist Cascade Aerospace offers Bombardier Dash 8 Q400-PF and CRJ200PF cargo kits certificated under a Transport Canada supplemental type certificate, but conversions to date remain in single figures. Of the smaller and older types, the Saab 340A and Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia have been turned into valuable cargo aircraft over the past 15 years.