Converting to air cargo: Eastern Airlines
EASTERN Airlines is set to blaze a trail in the freighter business and has acquired 35 B777 passenger aircraft (a mix of different versions) to mount a freighter operation with a twist.
Instead of going for a fully-fledged conversion, Eastern is turning all but two of the planes into class-E freighters. It is taking out seats and galleys to use the cabin for cargo but won’t reinforce the floor or rebuild the wing box to support heavy loads on the maindeck. Nor will it cut a new cargo door, at least not initially, reports London’s Air Cargo News.
This means that the plane is not suited to carry aircraft engines or other heavy loads on the maindeck – but this is not the cargo that management is aiming at.
Eastern’s chief executive, Steve Harfst, describes the origins of the new direction as a mix of market developments and opportunity.
The rapid rise of e-commerce has accelerated the trend of capacity maxing out on volume rather than weight and opened the door for a type of freighter with lower payload capability but ample volume for parcels.
“We focus primarily on the e-commerce market, which is low-density cargo. That market is growing fast enough that we can segment that and concentrate on it,” he says.
“Express freight doesn’t need structural changes like replacing the floor. Why charge customers for a capability they don’t need?”
With a typical load density of 5-7 lbs per cubic foot for e-commerce, a B777 can take about 100,000 lbs (45 tonnes) on its maindeck, which happens to be the weight bearing capability of the floor, he says, adding that the belly offers significant cargo capacity, ranging from 122,000 lbs (55 tonnes) to 165,000 lbs (75 tonnes).
Using passenger aircraft for cargo-only flying has been a balancing act for airlines, as the operating economics translate into rather thin margins.
An E-class freighter essentially has the same performance characteristics but a lower operating empty weight, as the seats and galleys have been removed, Mr Harfst points out.
By making full use of the maindeck, the plane can carry three times the volume of a preighter. Combined with a lower cost asset base and relatively low conversion costs, this offers “pretty powerful economics”, he says.
The concept doesn’t just work in a high-rate environment, he points out. “If we look at the pricing of the 2008/2009 recession, we can still be profitable,” he remarks.