Are B737 Freighters Getting Serious Competition?

The Airbus A320 as a regular freighter?
American aircraft modification companies seem to think that this variant has a future and can compete in the short-haul freighter market alongside Boeing’s 737F which has become a popular aircraft for the short and medium-haul sector.

P2F converted Boeing 737 operated by Europe Airpost  /  company courtesy
P2F converted Boeing 737 operated by Europe Airpost / company courtesy

´Airbus itself abandoned plans three years ago to bring the A320 into a regular freighter version.
It was seen those days that the demand for such an aircraft would not warrant Airbus opening a new production line solely for a short haul freighter variant. Meanwhile, at Dresden, Germany-based Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) they reconsider this decision, as confirmed by their management in a recent panel moderated by CargoForwarder Global on November 15, in Leipzig-Halle Airport. 

Things have changed
The Boeing 737 passenger aircraft conversions into freighters has been met with much interest. This especially applies to the B737-700 and -800 series aircraft which now have some years on their backs and where passenger carriers are ready to exchange them for the latest “neo” version.
They will gradually replace the already converted B737-300 and -400 series aircraft and offer higher payloads.

It’s interesting to note that Airbus itself had earlier formed a joint venture with United Aircraft and Irkut, the Russian based airframe specialists. This agreement was made in order to push the conversion of both A320 and A321 passenger aircraft into freighters with production planned for a start in the Dresden EFW factory.
These plans did not materialise despite apparently having been supported by aircraft lessor AerCap who had indicated that they would supply up to 30 A320s and A321s for this purpose.
Airbus pulled out of the deal in 2011 claiming that the heavy demand for passenger A320 and A321 aircraft would take priority.
It seems however that Airbus was along the way not convinced that the venture would come to fruition.

Boeing versus Airbus
Reconfigured A320 and A321 planes would have a 25 and 27.5 ton payload respectively.
This is somewhat more than what the older B737-400s can offer with their almost 22 ton payload, but probably within the payload range of newer generation 737 conversions.
However it is claimed that the Airbus cabin is somewhat narrower than that of its American rival and therefore not always suitable for bulkier cargo. But 25 tons compared to 22 tons at present, is also a selling point.

The Airbus freighter conversion has now been picked up again by the PacAvi Group who are based in California.
PacAvi sees a market for these aircraft, especially in India, Russia, Brazil and China.
They see these markets growing with the need for narrow body freighter aircraft to cater for domestic feed services as well as local airfreight movement.

The introduction of the Airbus A320neo aircraft and the orders on hand is said to ensure that many of the present A320/A321 passenger aircraft will be put out to rest or come into the freighter conversion mode.
The same arguments that Boeing sees with older 737s being phased out.

Is there really a market out there for both aircraft types?
Why not!
The B737 conversions have met with much interest and order books of companies converting them have begun to fill.
But, will it be just a matter of price?
The narrow body freighter market is no longer restricted to carriers operating on behalf of the larger integrators who use or rent in the services of these aircraft for feeder purposes.
There is an upcoming market in Africa as well as Russia and the CIS countries for using 737Fs and maybe A320/A321Fs for domestic and regional movements.
Stephan Hollman, CEO of PacAvi is quoted as saying that “this is a niche market sector and PacAvi intends to offer technologically advanced freighters at highly competitive prices.”

It only remains to be seen how competitive and how Boeing 737 conversion companies such as Pemco might react to this.

John Mc Donagh

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