IN FOCUS: Recession woes continue at small end of cargo conversion market

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There are no signs of a re-stimulation of the conversion business at the smaller end of the aircraft spectrum, as airlines remain reluctant and largely unable to replace passenger fleets with more modern types.

What little second-hand market has survived the recession is dominated by the first-generation ATR 42 and ATR 72 turboprop airliners, as early production passenger aircraft are replaced by the latest-generation models.

fokker 50 airteamimages

 AirTeamImages

Conversions of the Fokker 50 turboprop into a 6-8t freighter - continue to prove attractive

ATR has developed two dedicated freighter conversion programmes, the Bulk Freighter (tube version) and the ULD Freighter. Both involve complete stripping of furnishings, floor strengthening, new window plugs and 9g restraining nets, six additional longitudinal tracks for added flexibility, and an E-Class cabin. The latter can accommodate standard ULDs, such as LD3 containers or 88x108in (2.2x2.7m) pallets, loaded through a large forward cargo door on the port side.

The conversions are available for ATR 42 and the larger ATR 72 models. Also available are combi and quick-change versions, which require smoke detectors, floor reinforcement and an E-Class cabin. The first ATR 72 freighter delivery took place in July 2002, followed by the first ATR 42 with large cargo door.

Conversions are undertaken in Italy by Alenia subsidiary Aeronavali; San Antonio, Texas-based M7 Aerospace; Indraéro Siren and Aeroconseil, of France; Infinion Certification Engineering, of Canada; and Spanish company Arrodisa.

More than one-fifth of first-generation ATR 42 and ATR 72 aircraft have already been converted. While the conversion of ATR regional turboprops is a core business for M7 Aerospace, which has completed nearly 50 such modifications, it is also sole cargo converter of the smaller Fairchild Metro/Merlin family.

The speculative conversion of four-engined BAe 146 regional jets into freighters has been launched, abandoned, and re-launched. Romania's Aerostar has completed two aircraft, one BAe 146-300QT and one BAe 146-200QT, and will undertake further conversions if there is demand. However, no orders have been received and only the -300QT has found an operator, having been leased to Cobham in Australia. The -200QT remains on the books for sale or lease.

Plans by South African regional carrier SA Airlink to convert all of its 13-passenger aircraft into 3t freighters during the next few years has not progressed as expected because of a refusal by aviation authorities across the border to grant a Foreign Operators Permit for the dedicated freighter.

The airline has completed only two aircraft to date, both of which have entered scheduled service. The conversion involves the removal of sidewall panels, acoustic lining, passenger service units, seats and carpets, which are replaced by six internally assembled pods attached to the seat rails. Each pod includes a forward and aft net to secure the cargo. Other additions include a fire-detection system, a forward smoke barrier and aft cargo net.

SA Airlink says converted aircraft can easily be returned to passenger service. Of the BAE aircraft, the ATP has proved the most successful in passenger-to-cargo conversions, with 44 of the 62 aircraft converted into either a bulk-load variant, or fitted with a large freight door. No further conversions have been initiated in the past 12 months.

Conversions of the Fokker 50 turboprop into a 6-8t freighter - with or without a large forward cargo door - continue to prove attractive. Apart from the standard Fokker50Freighter, Netherlands-based Aircraft Conversions has added the Fokker50Xpress - using the passenger door and right-hand rear dispatch door for loading - and the Combi/9 version, which offers a 5.5t payload and a nine-seat passenger cabin.

The Combi/19 is under development, with an estimated payload of 4t and 19-seat passenger capacity at the rear. Colorado-based Phoenix Aero Solutions has been working on a possible E-freighter/combi conversion programme - with a large utility door for the Fokker 100 twinjet - the Fokker 100 Combi Reliever, which would either accommodate 11 LD3 containers, a 12-14t payload, or seat 20-50 passengers at the rear in combi configuration. However, it is thought this programme may have been abandoned.

Canada's Cascade Aerospace continues to offer Bombardier Dash 8 Q400-PF and CRJ200PF Package Freighter cargo kits for third-party conversion. Modifications involve replacing all passenger elements from the Q400, CRJ100 and CRJ200 with a full cabin-length Class E cargo compartment. Cascade Aerospace also provides conversions of the Q400 passenger and cargo aircraft into the Q400-MR Airtanker, with a computer-controlled retardant delivery system.

Sweden-based STC Twenty One, in partnership with Täby Air Maintenance, has delivered a number of converted Saab 340A and 340B bulk freighters, but also holds European Aviation Safety Authority supplemental type certification for the conversion of Shorts 360s, ATR 42s, BAe ATPs and Fokker 50s from passenger aircraft into bulk-loaded freighters.