Atlas Air, the world's largest Boeing 747 freighter operator, is close to deciding whether to order an unspecified number of 747-400 freighters.

According to Michael Chowdry, chairman and chief executive officer, the 747-400F is seen as "the next step" for the US contract cargo operator. Atlas Air is now wet-leasing a fleet of 19 747-200Fs on a full-time basis to customers including British Airways, Cargolux, China Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa Cargo and UPS.

"There are some routes, such as transpacific, where the 747-400 freighter's economics make it compare favourably against the 747-200 freighter, and we have already begun talking with our established and potential customers about this," says Chowdry.

He says that interest has been strong, adding that a European and an Asian carrier have expressed a "serious interest to proceed further" with the 747-400F proposal.

The deal will still depend on proving that the cost benefits of the -400F, with higher payloads and longer range, will "work against the -200F economics," says Chowdry, adding that "-we are beginning to think it can". Financing of up to $400 million is available, and he says that Atlas can access more funding "if necessary".

Atlas Air's policy has been to acquire used 747-200 passenger and combi airframes for conversion into freighters, with an overall cost of $35-40 million per aircraft compared to the $160 million list price for a 747-400F. The availability of such relatively cheap secondhand airframes has hit sales of the -400F: Boeing has only sold 20 aircraft to date to five customers: Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Cargolux, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.

Chowdry argues, however, that "-the majority of the 747-100 freighters in service now will disappear over the next few years" while the availability of high gross weight, late-build 747-200s for conversion is becoming limited.

Conversions of the 747-300 will be compromised by the weight penalties of the stretched upper deck, says Chowdry. After considerable analysis, Atlas in 1996 also rejected the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 freighter.

Source: Flight International