The belly freighter

25 / 01 / 2013

  • Chief executive of LCF Conversions Cliff Duke

    Chief executive of LCF Conversions Cliff Duke

CAN airlines be persuaded to look at freighters in a different way – to see them not as providing extra maindeck lift, but as supplemental belly capacity?

That is in essence the pitch that the Eolia Group is making with its new LCF Conversions programme – LCF standing for ‘Low Cost Freighters’. The idea – as has been well publicised in the past year – is to create freighters by installing lifts between lower and maindeck on retired passenger ‘planes, and thus produce a full cargo conversion without any need to cut a maindeck cargo door.

Cargo would be loaded through the existing lower deck doors, and there would be no need to strengthen the maindeck beams. LCF reckons it can be done for as little as US$6.5m on an A340 or $7.5m for a B777, and take six weeks, or half the time of a normal widebody conversion.

It is an innovative idea that the normally conservative air cargo business might take a while to get used to, but it might just be in tune with the times. A dominant theme in the last year or two has been the rise of belly cargo and squeezed economics for even mighty freigh-ter operators such as Cargolux.

Since the LCF conversion would, in effect, just be a double-deck belly cargo carrier, it might be just the thing to fit in with an increasingly belly-focused airline philosophy.

As Andy Coupland, a performance and operating economics consultant for LCF Conversions, points out, its product could be used to complement belly capacity on passenger flights, for example, where there is imbalance, or peak demands at weekends.

The use of belly pallets throughout the LCF conversion would make it easy to switch cargo between the two aircraft types.

“It’s a different way of looking at freighters,” says experienced air cargo professional Coupland. “They could be used by airlines who have philosophically decided not to have freighters, but want a way to make extra money on belly cargo.”

Cliff Duke (pictured), chief executive of LCF Conversions, speculates about other possible scenarios: using an LCF freighter for excess baggage, or trade goods, or a combi version for carriers which want the flexibility to decide how much belly space a route can support.

All of this begs the question of how much cargo is small enough to fit in widebodied bellies. Boeing figures show that about 60 per cent of freight is currently carried in the lower hold, but Duke reckons 90 per cent or more of freight could actually fit in belly containers or pallets.

“If we are right, then cargo that needs a large freight door is a much smaller market than people think,” he says. “Why buy a B747-8F or B777F, when our solution is available at a fraction of the cost?”

LCF does not just see its conversion as an extension of belly capacity, however. It argues that it is also going to be the only affordable way to convert most passenger aircraft in the future.

Duke, who has experience of selling both the A300B4 and B747-400 conversions, points out that these freighters were simply adaptations of robustly-built passenger aircraft that could stand a bit of metal cutting and streng-thening.

“Almost every aircraft type had a conversion, but in the future that will not be true,” he says. “Modern ‘planes were built using sophisticated design tools that optimise the structure for pass-enger use. That means they have a very light structure and there is little margin to put in a traditional maindeck and cargo door. In future you won’t get cheap conversions.”

Instead, he says, the conversion business will be dominated by the OEMs, who alone will have the technical data and expertise to convert their aircraft. But there are already signs that this will lead to fewer and more expensive con-version options.

Airbus, for example, after some dithering, has launched an A330 conversion programme, but is certain not to follow suit with an A340 conversion for fear of diluting its existing offering. As yet it has not confirmed the cost of its A330 product, but the technical challenges suggest that it will be at least $16m.

Boeing, meanwhile, floated plans for a B777 conversion as long ago as 2009, at a cost LCF reckons will ultimately be $40m. It will initially be focusing on the B777-200ER, but has yet to sign up any launch customers due to high feedstock prices.

Duke and Coupland do not deny the potential market for these products, but say they will only appeal to operators which can get the high 4-4,500-hour-per-year utilis-ations that will make these capital costs work.

They reckon their much cheaper solution could be viable on as little as 2,000 hours-per-year, which would enable airlines to use them in much more flexible ways.

LCF, at present, is pitching its solution at two aircraft types – the A340-300 and the B777-200. Duke says a third of the work needed to get a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) is complete, and either could be ready to go into production in a year.

The A340 would have a payload of 67 tonnes and the Boeing 71 tonnes, with the A340 hav-ing the advantage of an enormous 5,500-mile range at full payload – enough to fly from Frankfurt to Hong Kong.

A340 feedstock is available for as little as $9m per unit and the ‘plane is being rap-idly retired from passenger fleets, so in theory everything looks rosy for the pro-gramme.

The big question, however, is whether airlines will go for this new concept or if, in fact, they are turning their backs on freighters at any price.

Of the common objections, some are swiftly dealt with by LCF. One is the rather odd idea of loading cargo onto the maindeck via the lower cargo doors. LCF counters this with a video showing how simple the operation would be, though it concedes that slightly more manpower will be needed than for normal freighter loading.

Asked if the solution does not depend critically on the lift between lower and main-deck functioning properly, Duke points out that there are two lifts, both are over-powered for the job, and that they can be overridden manually. But his real argument is that we unthinkingly rely on lifts in our daily lives, so why should those on the LCF solution be any less reliable?

The higher fuel burn of the four-engined A340 could be a bigger problem – indeed, it is one reason it is being retired from many passenger fleets. Coupland argues that their A340LCF freighter would have 9-10 tonnes more payload than a con-verted A330-200, a factor which would more than compensate for the extra fuel cost, but that is assuming the aircraft flies with a full payload.

With the industry having just completed a mass clear-out of older, less fuel-effici-ent freighters – even relatively recently converted B747-400s – this may not be the best time to be persuading them to invest in a second life for the A340.The proof of the pudding, however, will be in the eating. 

Duke says that “despite having got to an age where I am mentally tuned to expect industry cynicism”, he has not yet had any negative comments on the idea, and is impressed by the support he has had at recent industry gatherings, including the highly successful Freighters World Conference in Frankfurt last year.

Coupland says LCF is in dialogue with two carriers, both existing operators of A340s. “They can still crew it even if they phase out the passenger aircraft, because of the commonality with other Airbuses,” he says.

What LCF now needs to give its concept real credibility is for one of these carriers to sign a contract. Then the industry will see that the idea really has wings.