Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Israel Aerospace Industries are adding production capacity to meet growing demand for conversions of narrow- and wide-body passenger aircraft into freighters.

The U.S. plane maker announced Wednesday that it is partnering with an airframe maintenance and repair specialist in Costa Rica so it can modify more 737-800 aircraft for full-time cargo work to meet the need of express delivery operators experiencing growing e-commerce volumes.

Cooperativa Autogestionaria de Servicios Aeroindustriales (COOPESA) in Alajuela will open two production lines next year under license to Boeing. 

The 737-800 converted freighter is primarily used to carry express cargo on domestic or short-haul routes. 

Boeing forecasts a need for 1,080 standard-body conversions over the next 20 years, with nearly 30% of that demand coming from North America and Latin America. But the explosive growth of e-commerce and related package shipments in the past year has far exceeded expectations because the pandemic changed shopping behavior and sent express delivery companies scurrying for more equipment to handle bigger volumes.

Boeing currently has three partners in China that are licensed to use its design for converting 737-800 passenger aircraft to freighters: Boeing Shanghai Aviation Services, Guangzhou Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Co. Ltd. (GAMECO) and Taikoo (Shandong) Aircraft Engineering Co. Ltd. (STAECO) in Jinan.

Other companies that separately modify 737-800s based on their own designs include Israel Aerospace Industries and Miami-based Aeronautical Engineering Inc.

Boeing has won more than 180 orders and commitments from 15 customers and delivered 50 reconfigured 737-800s since it launched the conversion program in 2018. It recently gained a direct competitor when Airbus last fall launched the new A321 converted freighter.

Passenger aircraft typically carry loose pieces of cargo and mail in the lower deck along with baggage. A conversion enables shipments to be consolidated in containers and loaded on the main deck. The process of converting an aircraft to cargo configuration includes removing seats, covering windows, reinforcing the floor and walls, adding a bulwark in front of the cockpit and adding a mechanical handling system for pallets.

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv-based IAI said Tuesday it will establish a Boeing 777 conversion facility in South Korea in anticipation of strong interest for the used all-cargo jet now under development. Boeing makes an original freighter version of the popular 777 aircraft — Silk Way West Airlines last month ordered five — but IAI is engineering the first conversion kit for the 777 along with leasing company GE Capital Aviation Services. IAI recently secured regulatory approval to move ahead with modifying the 777 from its original design and expects to begin engineering work on the prototype model this summer.

IAI said the South Korean conversion line, to be operated by Sharp Technics at Incheon International Airport, will convert six 777-300 Extended Range and 777-200 Long Range aircraft per year beginning in 2024.

The Israeli aviation group, which has converted planes for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), DHL (DXE: DPW) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX), says it expects to complete licensing for the retrofitted 777 in 2023. Kalitta Air, an all-cargo carrier based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has signed up for the first three aircraft off the line.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Eric Kulisch.


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