The launch of the 737MAX will leave behind large numbers of 737-NGs at the age and valuations that will make freight conversions attractive. To work, current planes must be available cheaply enough on the second-hand market, with about 15-20 years on the clock, to cover the cost of conversion and make a profit. Here are some of the options available:
Boeing 737 NG freighter options:
*** Updated 17 Jan 2017 ***
Boeing announced in late 2014 that the board has given authority to offer a 737-800 Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) although program launch is not likely to be until 2016 subject to getting enough orders.
Dan da Silva, Vice President of Modification and Conversion Services at Boeing, said in December 2014 that the company anticipates having enough commitments in the first quarter of 2015 to formally launch the programme. If so, the first aircraft could be delivered in late 2017. He describes the 737-800 BCF as possibly the simplest conversion Boeing has ever done; the result of a design philosophy that balances capability and the need for a very competitive price. The longer fuselage, compared to the 737-400, means it can carry 12 pallets (11 88in x 125in and one 53in x 88in) on the main deck – one more than the 737-400, giving it a maximum payload of 26,300kg with a 2,000nm range. And of course the 737-800 has significantly lower operating costs than the older generation 737-400.
Also Boeing is reviewing the aircraft conversion processes to reduce flow times. The need for the aircraft is driven by three main considerations: the first is regulatory pressure in key markets where there are age limits on aircraft, such as China; secondly, demand in China is such that by 2020 there will not be enough 737-400s to meet requirements; and finally there is a need for more advanced avionics to take advantage of RNP and FANS capabilities, which today require airlines to invest between $2 and $3 million to upgrade older generation 737-300s and -400s. There is still very high demand for the aircraft for passenger use though 737-800 deliveries started in 1998, with many being part of sale/leaseback deals. As 10-year leases are completed there will inevitably be returns as well as renewals, which should provide adequate feedstock, anticipates da Silva.
As for where Boeing will perform the conversions, Boeing released RFIs in summer 2015 and has received several expressions of interest. This will be followed by RFPs to suitably qualified providers, with the expectation that there will eventually be two or three BCF sites worldwide. These could be from a single provider or several organisations.
Boeing is also considering the 737-900ER BCF, but not until the early 2020s. This conversion would potentially offer higher payloads than the 737-800 BCF, getting somewhat closer to the 757-200SF, says da Silva. That aircraft is ideally suited to the Chinese market and, despite demand being strong, feedstock is extremely limited due to both the FedEx acquisition of more than 100 aircraft (the latest from United) and the fact current operators are hanging on to their aircraft until the end of their economic life.
Unannounced until now, IAI Bedek has also applied for a licence for the 737-700/800 and is already in advanced discussions with a launch customer, says Jack Gaber, Senior Vice-President Marketing and Business Development. The first project will be the 737-700, with work due to start in the first quarter of 2015, for first delivery in 2016. The 737-800 will start in late 2017, with faster redelivery coming in early 2018. Though these aircraft are more expensive, this is a relatively low-cost conversion, he says, and there is a real effort to design to cost in order to make the project viable. The 737-800 variant should also have the greatest demand. Gaber notes that all the 737NG projects will produce aircraft with similar payload/range characteristics, thus he is slightly surprised by Boeing’s entry into the market. The company will receive the licence fees from all the other players regardless, so he does not see how an OEM can either compete effectively on cost with specialist conversion houses or bring forth any unique product enhancements.
Aeronautical Engineers formally launched their programme in 2015.
GECAS’s Cargo Aircraft Group has disclosed, during the Paris air show, that it intends to convert up to 20 of its passenger 737-800s to freighters.
Conversion will be undertaken at Aeronautical Engineers’ modification centres in China and the USA, beginning next year.
GECAS says it expects the modified aircraft to achieve US FAA supplemental type certification in 2017 at which point the 737-800SF will be offered for lease as a freighter.
The lessor’s executive vice-president for specialty markets, Christopher Damianos, says the company believes the type will be a “best-in-class” aircraft for replacement and expansion in the single-aisle cargo sector.
Cargo Aircraft Group has previously opted to convert 737-300s and -400s to freighters, and its portfolio of cargo jets also includes larger freighter types.
Aeronautical Engineers says that securing GECAS as the launch customer for the -800 conversion will offer the lessor a “high residual value solution” for its -800 fleet.
The Aeronautical Engineers Inc. (AEI) B737-800SF Cargo Conversion consists of the installation of a 86" x 140" cargo door on the left side of the fuselage, and modificationn of main deck to a Class E cargo compartment. After conversion the aircraft can carry eleven 88" x 125" AAA full height containers or pallets plus one AEP/AEH, with pallet weights up to 9,000 lbs.
The cargo door is hydraulically operated and actuated from the inside of the aircraft by a independent system. Hydraulic pressure is available from two sources: a 28VDC electrically operated hydraulic pump or a manual hand pump. The door control and manual pump are located on the 9g barrier, allowing a single person to operate the door manually.
17 May 2016 - AEI signs agreement for 30 additional B737-800SF freighter conversions
Aeronautical Engineers, Inc. (AEI) announced today the company has signed an agreement to provide up to 30 twelve pallet position B737-800SF conversions with an undisclosed customer. The agreement calls for 15 firm orders with an additional 15 options. The modifications for the customer will begin in late 2018 with deliveries beginning in 2019. To date, and including this recent announcement, AEI has received a total of 80 firm orders and commitments for its twelve pallet position B737-800SF. The conformity aircraft for the 737-800SF conversion program is currently on location at Commercial Jet’s facility in Miami, FL.
The AEI B737-800SF converted freighter will be able to accommodate eleven 88”x125” AAA full height containers or pallets and one AEP/AEH container for a total of 12 positions. Depending upon the aircraft model and aircraft weight limits, the AEI B737-800SF will be able to carry a payload of up to 52,000 LB (23,587 KG). Additionally the AEI B737-800SF freighter will incorporate an 86” x 140” main cargo door and will include up to 5 supernumerary seats.
15 Dec 2015 - China Postal Airlines orders 10 737-800BCFs
China Postal is the second carrier to sign for the 737 BCF programme, after Hangzhou-based YTO Airlines. Boeing says the order comes “pending a product launch”, and that it will support customers in the narrowbody freighter market with the 737 BCF programme. China Postal airlines already operates two 737-300QCs, 12 737-300SFs and eight 737-400SFs.
30 Sep 2015 - Boeing receives first commitment for 737-800BCF
Boeing has received the first commitment to order a converted freighter version of the 737-800 from a Chinese start-up airline, but the programme has yet to be launched. Boeing confirms that the Hangzhou YTO Express has signed a commitment to order the 737-800BCF. The company did not provide numbers, but a Chinese aviation news site reports the YTO commitment numbers 15 aircraft. YTO launched service on 26 September with a 737-300 cargo aircraft, the first of three the airline expects to receive. Meanwhile, Boeing is still building a business case for launching the freighter conversion of the 737-800, the company tells Flightglobal. Both Boeing and Pemco have been polling customers for interest in the type as the next-generation series of the 737 is replaced by the re-engined 737 Max. Boeing reportedly received an authority to offer the 737-800BCF last year, but has not publicly announced any commitments until the YTO deal. The company remains in discussions with multiple airlines about the type, Boeing says. "We look forward to launching the 737BCF program once we have met our launch criteria," Boeing adds.