After almost two years of work on preparing the transition from prototype to in-service aircraft, carried out by Elbe Flugzeugwerke - EFW (which is a joint venture between ST Aerospace and Airbus), acting on behalf of the Luxembourg-based Vallair Cargo Conversion Division, the first ever A321 Passenger-to-Freighter conversion has taken to the skies.
Speaking at the Cargo Facts EMEA conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on 05FEB20, Wolfgang Schmid, who was introduced as “the cargo industry’s designated magician” but also holds the position of Vice President Sales & Marketing for Airbus freighter conversions at EFW, was clearly pleased with his latest act. Far from being an illusion, the first A321F is now airborne, as he illustrated showing a FlightRadar24 picture of the EASA test flight setting off from Singapore on 22JAN20. Two test flights of 6.5 hours each have been accomplished thus far and the test aircraft, though looking very much like work-in-progress since that it has yet to be given its livery, “landed in one piece! So, we are very proud to have this new landmark in our family. […] The A321 is now the third aircraft in the family. The A320 will follow. We will likely start on the A320 by the end of this year.”
Milestone for Airbus in Boeing-dominated narrow-body freighter market
Coming back to the A321F test flights, Wolfgang Schmid stated that some adjustments still needed to be made, but that he expected the SDC and conversion approval for the new A321F product to come before the end of this year’s first quarter, and emphasized that “[this is] definitely a milestone for us and for the industry, because narrow-body freighters have been 100% Boeing up until now. We are all believers that this is a very powerful aircraft that it will find its place. It will very clearly be a replacement of the B757.” A sentiment that was very much shared in a previous panel discussion at the Cargo Fact EMEA conference, when Colin Grant, Chief Executive Officer, ASL Airlines Europe, Alex Harrington, Commercial Director, Titan Airways and Stefan Kageman, Senior Vice President, Head of Aircraft Marketing, Vx Capital, discussed the merits of the A321F in comparison to the B737-400F now reaching the end of its lifetime. The A321F offers much more volume, is more comparable to the B757F, and more efficient on the shorter legs (since the B757F is actually designed for longer distances).
The A321F’s key features
“14+10 is one of the lead features of our product: 14 full upper positions, 10 on lower.” Wolfgang Schmid went on to point out that, “in favor of having more space, we moved the cockpit door to the front. […] Another solution is the exit window, which can be opened from the outside. […] An important feature is our fly-by-wire cockpit with a fully integrated system indicating which cargo (instead of passenger) doors are open. The programming for this was done by Airbus for EFW.”
In Vallair’s press statement issued on 05FEB20, Gregoire Lebigot, President & CEO at Vallair, predicated a growing demand for this freighter type: “The A321P2F will be the first aircraft to introduce a containerized lower deck to the market segment of narrow-body freighters; a significant game-changer for any hub and spoke operation. We see a huge potential for this aircraft as a key tool for the cargo industry to achieve the projected growth rate of the air freight market in general, particularly express services and e-commerce. Additionally, the substantial fuel efficiency advantages are well-suited to 1 to 4-hour flight legs.”
Qantas will be the first airline to operate the A321F
Currently registered as D-ANJA for Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), the prototype A321P2F (MSN835) is headed for Qantas, which will be the first airline in the world to operate the A321 as a freighter aircraft. Compared to its existing fleet, the A321P2F will add almost 50% more capacity, and is due to be delivered in July 2020.
Wolfgang Schmid pointed out that there was no shortage of feed-stock for the A321 and that the next couple of years would tell how the product develops. The Vallair press statement echoed the positive forecast in Lebigot statement: “We have invested in a fleet of feed-stock A321 aircraft and our team continues to work with exceptional dedication to bring this program to fruition. We anticipate that a mature production line for conversion will settle at around 4 months and we already in negotiation with other airlines and operator/lessees, keen to upgrade their freighter fleets.”
In fact, Vallair has already awarded a contract to EFW to convert a further ten A321-200 passenger aircraft over the next two years.
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