Boeing is looking at committing to a 747-400 freighter conversion programme within a year, possibly as a collaborative effort. The move is in response to growing market demand driven by a decline in residual aircraft values and increasing availability of older passenger aircraft for modification.

"As the residual value of the 747-400 drops there are a lot people that could make use of these assets. We're gearing up in response to customers. The trade-off for airlines is whether to go somewhere else or go to Boeing which has the intellectual knowledge to do that," says Alan Mulally, Boeing Commercial Airplanes president.

Until now Boeing has held back from launching a conversion programme, conscious that its 747-400 production line has been heavily sustained by orders for new freighters. The recent launch of the increased gross weight 747-400XF, offering extended payload/range performance, effectively repositions the aircraft away from the present -400F (Flight International, 8-14 May).

The Seattle manufacturer has indicated it might prefer to do the work in collaboration with a third-party conversion house, such as Israel Aircraft Industries or Taikoo Aircraft Engineering, and/ or customers such as Atlas Air.

"Atlas would be a great place to do that and we're talking to them about it," says Mulally. "Every arrangement that I can think of has been offered, from an equity partner to a joint venture to do it together. It depends on peoples' financial situation and what they want to get out of it," he adds.

In addition to normal freighter conversion design work - strengthening floors, installing doors and a fire suppression system - the 747-400's extended upper deck presents an added challenge. The top deck is not suitable for carrying pallets, which effectively undermines the aircraft's payload/range advantage over the earlier 747-200F.


"The conversion is not as simple as putting a door or floor in. The thing we have got to do to convert the 747-400 to a really good aircraft is to take the weight of the upper deck out. Its going to mean expense, but it's still a lot cheaper than a new freighter," says Brian Rowe, Atlas Air chairman.

Source: Flight International