The configuration of older passenger aircraft into freighters has become a lucrative business during the past decade or so. In the meantime, there are hundreds of ‘P2F' aircraft operating on behalf of express companies around the world and also for smaller regional airlines, specifically in the Far East and Africa.
The B737 variant comes out on top
It is estimated that so far well over 150 Boeing 737 aircraft have been converted into freighters which will have an average new lifetime of up to twenty years. Most of these conversions have been from B737-400 and B737-700 aircraft which have served out their passenger lifetime cycles. A lucrative business has been generated by various companies, including Boeing, to meet the demand for the transport of small parcels and the ever-growing e-commerce business.
Carriers such as China Post, SF Airlines, YTO Airlines, DHL, Fedex and others top the list of carriers wanting converted equipment.
The demand is not only for short-haul freighters with an average payload of around 25 - 30 tons, but also for the mid- to long range versions of converted B757 and B767 aircraft. There is even a new programme being set up to convert elderly B777 passenger aircraft into freighters with a payload of over 100 tons.
Combi freighters have so far not played a noticeable role in this development. This now seems to be changing.
Pemco leads with the B737 FlexCombi
It has often been debated as to whether smaller versions of the ‘combi-freighters’ can be useful or make money for their operators. The older B747 combi aircraft have more or less disappeared, with KLM having been one of the last operators of such versions.
However, a market niche for smaller combis such as the B737 seems to have cropped up again especially on the African continent and in the Middle East.
In April of 2017 Tampa, Florida-based PEMCO World Air Services (PEMCO), which is a fully owned subsidiary of the Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), announced that they were to launch a Passenger-to-FlexCombi. The aircraft targeted was the B737-700, of which many have already been converted into full freighters. ATSG which is well known as a supplier of B767 freighters to Amazon, fully supported PEMCO’s initiative and in the meantime the first version is ready for commercial operations.
The customer is Bahrain-based Texel Air founded in 2013 and owned by Chisholm Enterprises who are also based in Bahrain. Texel Air still operate two very old B737-300 combi aircraft on regional services throughout the Middle East. They can be used either as full freighters or carry a mixture of passengers and freight. These, however, have reached the end of their lifetime and are far too costly to operate. The B737-700 FlexCombi is an aircraft which Chisholm Enterprises has put their money on.
Different combination of seating and cargo sections
The new aircraft was unveiled at the Bahrain Air show which was held in mid-November 2018. The aircraft which is 14 years old was handed to Texel Air by PEMCO and is entering commercial service in January this year.
It’s completely different to the elder B737 models and Chisholm is said to have themselves invested quite an amount into the conversion programme. It offers a total of six different combinations of seating and cargo compartments. These range from a 24 seat and 6 pallet version to a 4-seat business class and 7 pallets. Texel Air also says they can offer a ‘medevac’ configuration at short notice to transport patients over long distances.
Texel Air has made a name for itself during the past five years for transporting a mixture of passengers and cargo on Middle Eastern regional routes. The B737-700 FlexCombi offers them a far better range and mixed payload.
This aircraft could well be interesting for regional operations in Africa. There is a strong demand for better inter-African air cargo services, especially into outlying areas which also lack direct or frequent passenger connections.
A new conversion avenue
John Mc Donagh