Deutsche Lufthansa AG (DXE: LHA) is expanding its cargo capabilities with a rare investment in narrowbody freighters.
The German flag carrier said Wednesday that its cargo division, which operates 10 Boeing 777 widebody freighters and has access to four more through its Aerologic joint venture with DHL, will acquire two Airbus A321 passenger aircraft and have them converted into freighters for use on intra-European routes that support growing e-commerce demand. Lufthansa Cargo will take delivery of an additional 777 later this year.
The two small freighters will be operated for Lufthansa Cargo by sister company Lufthansa CityLine, a regional passenger carrier that operates A319 aircraft, as well as smaller Embraer and Bombardier jets. The A321 freighters will operate from CityLine’s hub at Frankfurt Airport.
Lufthansa didn’t provide details on where it will source the aircraft or who will do the conversion work, but said the planes will enter service in early 2022.
CityLine’s entrance into the freighter business is part of a trend among some passenger airlines. In recent months SmartLynx in Latvia, Air Canada (TSX: AC), Canada’s WestJet, Sun Country and Mesa Airlines have all launched freighter divisions, or announced plans to do so, in an effort to diversify revenue and ride the air cargo wave being pushed by e-commerce transactions.
Lufthansa cited research showing that cross-border e-commerce volumes in Europe are forecast to grow at about 20% per year for the next five years.
Lufthansa is an early adopter of the A321 freighter, which entered the market late last year as a competitor to the repurposed Boeing 737-800. Both aircraft are highly sought by express delivery carriers and others that operate short- and medium distance service because of their improved fuel efficiency compared to older aircraft and optimal size for regular shuttle runs. Consumer expectations for fast delivery are increasing demand for more airfreight connections in Europe and around the world.
The A321 has the added benefit of being able to carry a few thousand pounds more cargo and small containers in its belly hold, in addition to large containers on the main deck. Aviation experts also consider the A321 a good candidate to replace Boeing 757 freighters, which are nearing the end of their lifespan.
“With the converted A321s, we are meeting our customers’ growing demand for same-day solutions and further strengthening our dense network of global connections as well as our product offering,” said Lufthansa Cargo CEO Dorothea von Boxberg in a statement. “The selected aircraft type can transport 28 metric tons per flight, significantly larger cargo volumes than in the short-haul bellies of passenger aircraft. In addition to forwarders, integrators and postal operators, eCommerce providers will be customers for this offering.”
So far, SmartLynx, Titan Airways and Australia’s Qantas Airways each operate one A321.
Two companies make the conversion kits and manage the aircraft reconstruction: Elbe Flugzeugwerke GmbH, a joint venture between Airbus and Singapore’s ST Engineering; and 321 Precision Conversions in the U.S. A third company, China-based Sine Draco Aviation, also plans to start conversion work next year, pending certification of its design by aviation authorities.
Overhauling passenger aircraft to carry heavy cargo on the main deck requires installing wider doors, removing seats and other interior features, reinforcing floor supports, adding a rigid barrier in front of the cockpit, and installing a mechanical cargo handling system for moving large containers.