The Dresden, Saxony-based specialist enjoys increasing requests to convert the Airbus variants A330 and A320/A321. This was already apparent at the end of 2019 and has become increasingly clear since the outbreak of the corona crisis led to a standstill in passenger traffic. Customers who want EFW to convert one of their Airbus passenger jetliners should hurry up, since slots are getting exceedingly rare, Gilbert Birke, Head of P2F Sales at Elbe-Flugzeugwerke (EFW) confirms.
Just how quickly a prosperous business situation can sometimes fundamentally turn to the opposite, was illustrated by the fluctuating course of air traffic in the last 12 months. It started with
the grounding of the Boeing B737MAX following two fatal crashes, which massively upped the demand for available narrow body passenger aircraft. At that time, the interest of Airbus operators in
P2F conversion was negligible.
However, this changed partially when leisure travel provider Thomas Cook grounded its fleet after becoming insolvent, leading to a sudden increase in available air transport capacity. Finally, the corona pandemic sent air traffic downhill, followed by a near standstill of global aviation.
Changed aircraft availability
From that point on, the market's interest in P2F conversions shot up rapidly. "Compared to the months before, there was suddenly a large feedstock of available aircraft that were eligible for conversion," EFW manager, Gilbert Birke describes the effect of the pandemic on the aircraft market.
While the Covid-19 lockdown threatens many aviation companies’ existence, it conversely tends to spur EFW’s business. This phenomenon is evidenced by the fast-increasing number of inquiries for P2F conversions piling up at its Dresden HQ.
Growing demand for conversions
EFW has a track conversion record, based on almost 200 A300/A310P2F rebuilt passenger-to-freighter aircraft conversions and, more recently, several A330-300 and A330-200 P2F completed orders contracted by DHL Express (-300) and Egyptair (-200). Currently, three passenger A330-300s are standing in EFW’s Dresden hangar, stripped of their chairs, galleys, overhead bins, and rest rooms, and instead equipped with reinforced floors, roller-beds, and large cargo hatches. “Four widebody A330 aircraft are the maximum being simultaneously converted in our facility,” says Mr. Birke. Three more will be delivered to customer DHL in 2020, with 12 additional A330s to follow for this integrator.
However, given the growing order book, today’s production rate should not remain at this level. “Our goal is 15 A330 conversions per year, and mid-term we are even looking at 20 units,” the manager states.
Market demand is there, he says, quoting Airbus and Boeing freighter forecasts.
Exclusive A330 conversion program
So far, the Dresden facility is the sole production site for all A330P2F conversions. However, provided market demand for conversions keeps growing, this specific Airbus variant could also be remodeled in the hangars of Singapore-based ST Aerospace, a subsidiary of ST Engineering. STE owns 55% in EFW, with Airbus Group holding 45% in the company.
In addition to A330s, conversion of A320s and A321s is gaining speed. The program was launched five years ago, with stakeholder Airbus contributing Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) data and certification support, on-board computer development, as well as airframe engineering.
The remodeled narrow body freighter aircraft is an interesting option for integrators or e-traders such as Alibaba or Amazon, as seen by its performance parameters.
Will the A321P2F become a new trendsetter?
This, because the A321P2F is the first in its size category offering containerized loading in both the main deck (up to 14 full container positions) and lower deck (max 10 container positions). The aircraft is able to carry up to 27.9 metric tons over a distance of 2,300 nautical miles. Aviation experts say that this P2F converted Airbus variant offers all the prerequisites to challenge Boeing, the undisputed leader in freighter production. “The new generation of Airbus narrow bodies will become a trendsetter in the conversion market as it is the best product in this aircraft segment,” Gilbert Birke exclaims.
Better to fly (as freighter) than die
Even if the manager does not address the issue, the fact is that his company benefits indirectly from the pandemic. This is because a growing number of Airbus passenger A321 and A320s are immediately available for conversion – contrasting pre-corona times. “Better to invest in the conversion to turn an A321 into a freighter than having the aircraft stuck on the ground for an indefinite time,” Mr. Birke reasons. His point: Parking aircraft for months at some runway or apron turns out to become an extremely costly exercise, given the ongoing expenditures for maintenance or fees levied by airports. This all the more since it might take years for air travel to fully recover, prolonging the parking time for many pax aircraft.
“The pandemic is demonstrating how volatile and sometimes crisis-related the travel business and thus the transport of air freight in the lower decks of passenger aircraft is. In contrast, freighters are unaffected by this. They fly independently of any pandemics. Perhaps this will lead some airline managers to rethink their fleet policy,” Mr Birke states.
That said, it makes a lot of sense for lessors or airlines to have some of their A320s or A321 converted to freighters. “You can’t earn money with an aircraft parked on the ground,” he argues. Simultaneously, market demand for main deck capacity is going through the roof and will continue to be high, he predicts, citing forecasts.
With these considerations he is in good company. The sharp rise in feedstock and the rapidly increasing number of conversion requests confirm this trend.
Rosy prospects for his company!
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