Passenger-to-freighter (PTF) conversions have for several months been heralded by both Bombardier and GE Commercial Aviation Services (GECAS) as a small but significant outlet for some of the 100 or so 50-seat CRJ regional jets dropped from service last year as part of the US airline industry’s restructuring. Despite the lack of any order to date, Bombardier is pushing ahead with plans to launch a PTF programme by the end of the year.

The programme will be promoted as a quick, low-cost alternative, with a basic cabin strip and strengthening programme forming the core of the projected $500,000 conversion, producing an aircraft for high-yield, express-package operations with payloads of around 6,800kg (15,000lb).

“The CRJ is a niche product, but it will offer freight operators a quick, efficient solution for 2-3h routes without having to worry about connections,” says Bombardier vice-president asset management Rod Sheridan.

“We have seen this before,” he adds. “We saw it with the [Embraer EMB-120] Brasilias, and we believe it will happen with the CRJ200s.”

The Brasilia conversion market, which is 21 aircraft-strong according to Flight International’s sister database ACAS, gives hope. Forecasts for the secondary freighter market range from 25-50 aircraft. Fifty units may not sound much, but at more than half of the regional jets classified as parked, such numbers will solve several issues for regional jet manufacturers and owners.

Although Bombardier will not say which operators might choose the CRJ200 freighter, the manufacturer confirms it is in talks with two companies. Regardless of the results of these talks, Bombardier still plans to launch its 30-day conversion programme by the end of the year.

This is not the first time Bombardier has been in talks to launch the CRJ200 PTF programme. Although never publicly admitted, it was well known that the manufacturer and GECAS were pitching the concept to FedEx Express, and expected to place at least a dozen units with the Memphis-based cargo giant. However, it has been disclosed that this deal has collapsed, with FedEx deciding to maintain its turboprop acquisition programme, under which it has already accumulated 29 ATR 42s and 11 ATR 72s, seven of which are under conversion.

The choice between turboprop and regional jet is key to the CRJ200 freighter programme, says Air Cargo Management project director Robert Dahl. “The 10,000-15,000lb [4,550-6,800kg] range is dominated by the ATRs, with the 42s able to fill the lower end around 12,000lb and the 72 the higher point up to 17,000lb,” says the Seattle-based consultant.

“You also have to consider that most of these payloads are only going 300nm [550km], when the speed of a regional jet really does not make that much difference but the fuel burn – regardless of the cost per gallon – is significant. Purchase cost is another significant factor. Dahl notes many of the parked CRJ200s are young, which makes them expensive.

Even the older CRJ100s, averaging 10 years, are still millions of dollars more than the $2-5 million cost of an ATR.

According to ACAS, the world ATR fleet totals about 650 aircraft, of which 350 are 42s. Says Dahl: “I can see how you can argue that on routes of 2-4h with a 15,000lb payload the regional jet could be more efficient, but then the question is: how many of those routes are out there?”

Source: Flight International