The launching contract for the Airbus A321 passenger to freighter (P2F) conversion was announced in early 2018 by means of a joint venture between Germany’s Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), ST Aerospace and Airbus. The launching customer was France’s Vallair Solutions which placed an order for 10 A321-200 converted aircraft.
An ideal replacement for 757F?
This, at least is what EFW, ST Aerospace and Airbus seemed to think when they first launched the conversion programme in 2015. There are quite a few A321 passenger aircraft which are approaching the end of their passenger carry life cycles and are ideal feedstock for conversion into freighters.
The mid-sized and medium range A321P2F freighter will have 14 main deck positions and will be the first narrow body freighter to have a fully containerized lower deck, something which will ensure a speedy loading and offloading sequence for its users. This aircraft also offers an attractive 28-ton payload which can be carried non-stop over a distance of 2,300 nautical miles (4,260 km) making it a suitable candidate for domestic and regional express operations.
Chinese express market not the only target area
Vallair, as launch customer, which operates various aviation support companies, among them aircraft leasing, seems to be confident that they will or already have customers on hand to lease the new freighter.
The Chinese express market seems to be the ideal area to market the A321P2F considering that the express and e-commerce market in this vast region continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Operating aircraft between Chinese cities often means flight distances of between 3,000 – 4,000 kilometers - thereby placing the A321P2F at the top of some carriers lists there.
However, interest has been awakened on the other side of the pond - namely in the USA.
The Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) which with its daughter companies ABX Air and ATI - Air Transport International are in the meantime well known for their operations on behalf of Amazon - also seem to have interest in the A321P2F freighter. During the latest quarterly earnings call, ATSG CEO, Joe Hete, made no secret of the fact that the ATSG Group is looking at getting U.S. certification for the A321P2F by the middle of next year in order to have a conversion programme up and running by late 2021 or early 2022.
A future Amazon/Prime candidate?
Although ATSG has a long-standing cooperation with Amazon in the United States, this does not mean that they would not be adverse to marketing future A321 converted freighters in the Chinese market as well. ABX Air and ATI together operate 27 Boeing 767 freighters for Amazon on U.S. domestic routes with a total of 30 aircraft targeted to be in service for the retail giant by the end of 2020.
Would the A321P2F also be a candidate for Amazon operations on slimmer trunk routes within the USA as well? If Amazon were also to break ground in Europe by setting up their own flight operations there, then the A321P2F with its almost 30-ton payload and fully containerized main deck and belly compartments, may well be a suitable candidate.
Airbus has not been lucky with their wide-body freighter, the A330F. Few orders have come in and some carriers have got rid of their freighters in favour of Boeing aircraft. Maybe the A321P2F programme will bring the European aircraft manufacturer back into the cargo limelight.
Faury questioned in Hamburg on Airbus future
At last week’s German business and aviation journalists meet in Hamburg, the guest speaker was Airbus CEO, Guillaume Faury. When questioned by CFG on Airbus’s almost non-existent freighter programme he stated: “currently we have no short-term freighter plans. We don’t see sufficient market demand to justify the enormous investments it needs to build a family of new freighter aircraft.”
He went on to say: “instead we concentrate on stepping up our production rate particularly for the A321 passenger variants that account for 50 percent of our single aisle passenger family.”
Leaving then the door open for Boeing in the freighter field?
When asked by CFG about developments for the A321XLR (Extra Long Range) programme he assured us that the Airbus Hamburg plant will be the kick-off point for this aircraft’s production. He also made it clear that there are no immediate plans to move the United Kingdom wing production plant elsewhere once Brexit becomes reality. However, future investments (in the UK) will have to be adapted to future political and economic circumstances.
Airbus, Faury said, aims to achieve CO2-neutral growth by 2030 and a greenhouse gas emission of -50% by 2050 compared to 2005 data.
In closing the Airbus Chief stated that it will take a long time before autonomous flown passenger aircraft become reality. “Freighters, he said, might however be the first aircraft flying without pilots.”
One has to wonder whether he refers to Boeing or Airbus freighters?
John Mc Donagh / Heiner Siegmund
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