Supporting the growing trend in P2F conversions

Air cargo is critical to the global aviation market, transporting almost 70 million tonnes of goods annually. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline cargo transport represents about 35% of global trade by value but less than 1% by volume.

Whilst the concept of P2F (passenger to freight) aircraft conversions pre-dates the pandemic, it is really over the past three years that the global aviation sector has seen a seismic shift in both the importance and volume of air cargo.

With Covid-19 forcing airlines to close down passenger operations, this situation also massively reduced cargo capacity, as nearly 50% of the world's air freight was transported via wide-body passenger aircraft. The pandemic caused a collapse in revenue and many operator failures but ironically, millions of tonnes of medical supplies and other goods still needed to be transported quickly across the world. Air freight was the obvious and fastest solution and one which would give airlines a commercial lifeline. 

Since 2020, when the first P2F conversion was done on an Airbus A330-300, operated by Cathay Pacific, multiple airlines pivoted into cargo, involving either light cargo modifications or full cargo configuration, of a number of wide and narrow-body airframes. In fact, industry commentators believe that, in order to meet the increased need for air freight capacity, there is healthy demand for newer generation aircraft, such as A321 and 777, to undergo P2F conversion, as replacements for older types including the MD11, 747, 757 and A300, for example. While the process depends on the aircraft and what sort of cargo it will transport, complete cargo conversions can give a plane up to 30% more cargo space, whilst reducing fuel consumption per tonne of payload by about 20%.

The worldwide aviation industry’s capacity to adapt quickly has enabled it to navigate a challenging post-pandemic landscape, which has since included ongoing conflicts in the Ukraine and Middle East.  The requirement to support global supply chains as markets grapple with manufacturing parts shortages and economic turbulence, has alleviated financial pressures to some degree but also demonstrated to the international community how important aviation is to an ever-changing world.

The process of converting a passenger aircraft into freight configuration is not, however, a case of simply removing the seats. A P2F conversion requires major structural modifications to an aircraft’s approved Type Certificate (TC) from its original manufacture. Since the TC certifies the airworthiness of the aircraft’s designated design and intended operational performance, a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) must be ratified before the converted aircraft returns to service, which rubber stamps the airworthiness of major modifications.

The transformation of a passenger aircraft to a freighter involves four main steps:

  • Pre-conversion ground and flight tests to determine suitability
  • Development of structural and ancillary modifications
  • Qualification of modified systems
  • Post-conversion ground and flight tests for certification

To be classified as a freighter aircraft, two primary modifications are required. The floor structure must be strengthened with beams and posts to handle heavier loads and the standard passenger doors must be removed and replaced by cargo doors, in order to accommodate palletised containers, which necessitates airframe reinforcement in this area. Depending on the operational needs of the aircraft operator, other modifications may be required, such as the fuel system, temperature controls, fire detection and ventilation. The aircraft windows are also sealed shut, using special aluminum panels.

 A P2F conversion project typically takes several months to complete, depending on the extent of the modifications. Whilst the cost is also dependent on the specific work involved, the whole process is significantly less expensive (and quicker) than purchasing a new cargo aircraft, making this an attractive and time-sensitive proposition for airlines.

Based in Italy, with projects at many airports and hangars around the world, Air Worthy has significant experience in managing the complex challenges related to obtaining the necessary STC (Supplemental Type Certification) for freighter modifications. In January 2023, Air Worthy worked in partnership with Avia Prime and Israeli Aerospace Industries to deliver the first P2F conversion of a Boeing 767-300, operated by Challenge Air Cargo.

As an EASA-certified CAMO (Continuing Airworthiness Management Organisation - (EU) No.1321/2014), Air Worthy was responsible for the engineering and planning support throughout the conversion process, which included the necessary avionics and structural modifications. Based on the success of this pioneering project, the second B767-300 is about to commence conversion in Belgrade, Serbia.

Commented Air Worthy’s Accountable Manager, Gabriele Brescianino:

“Our extensive engineering knowledge and experience gained over many years enables Air Worthy’s team to manage the intricacies of the P2F certification process diligently and accurately. We are fully conversant with the regulations required to ensure that any modifications will result in STC approval within the maintenance timeframe.”

Ensuring that it remains at the forefront of CAMO capability, Air Worthy is in the final stages of securing an additional CAMO approval from the Italian CAA. This will extend the consultancy’s approval from B737NG to all B737 models.

Looking ahead, global industry forecasts suggest that modifications are likely to be the fastest growing MRO segment. A compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4% is projected over the next decade, with significant expenditure predicted in P2F conversions. As a result, a number of cargo conversion centres have opened around the world, in anticipation of this growth.

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