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Airbus' A330s head for conversion

By Hpanchal on August 29, 2011

Airbus is poised to launch a conversion program for A330 freighters, although it is not clear yet if the new offerings will include both the -200 and -300 variants of the aircraft.

It was widely believed that the new conversion program would be launched at June’s Paris Air Show. But sources have suggested that Airbus may have wished to delay the announcement over concerns that sales of the new A330-200F would be impacted.

Wolfgang Schmid serves as vice president, freighter conversions, at EADS EFW, Airbus’s own conversion facility in Dresden, Germany. He’s convinced that the A330F conversion program will have a strong future when the first orders are accepted.

“We know that the market is very keen on this extraordinary, next-generation freighter conversion program, with pre-studies looking very positive,” he said.

According to Schmid, there is an immediate feedstock of about 800 A330 passenger  aircraft in operation, with a backlog of more than 300 aircraft on order. “This means that we expect that a strong demand will be covered by a strong feedstock base for many years,” he said, “although the decision regarding timing and choice of variants is not completely finished.”

Some carriers have been pressing hard for the early startup of the A330F conversion program. A spokesman from Qatar Airways has stated that they want to convert up to 15 of their A330 fleet into freighters as soon as possible. That might have been spurred by Qatar’s recent investment in European all-cargo carrier Cargolux, but it is also thought that the Gulf carrier may look to lease some of its conversions. Schmid says he is also expecting strong demand from the integrators for the A330 freighter conversion.

In the meantime, the EADS EFW plant in Dresden is busy with an extended order book for A300F conversion work. The first of two A300-600R converted freighters has recently been delivered to RUS Aviation, which is based at Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. At the same time, three A300-600 freighters for Maximus Air Cargo, which is based at neighboring Abu Dhabi in the UAE, are also being completed. Earlier this year, DHL Express placed an order for the conversion of 13 A300-600 aircraft, making it the largest single conversion order ever received by EADS EFW. Conversions on the integrator’s first five freighters are already underway.

It typically takes four months to convert an A300 into its new freighter configuration. After passenger seating and interiors have been removed, the main-deck cargo door is fitted to the aircraft. Next, a stronger cabin floor is installed, which is then fitted with ball mats and roller tracks, before final adjustments are made to the aircraft’s operating systems. Further customization includes a courier stowage unit for A300 and A310 conversions — a recent development.

But the feedstock for the A300-600 is not infinite. “The A300-600R conversion program has been available in the market for 10 years now, and during that time, it has remained the prime solution in this freighter segment,” Schmid said. “There are still quite a few candidates in the market which are suitable for conversion, but adequate feedstock supply is expected to limit the conversion output from 2015.”

Similarly, feedstock is rapidly running out for the A310F conversion program, the first of the Airbus wide-bodied family to be offered up for conversion by EADS EFW. The company increasingly plays a broker role in trying to pair up potential A310F conversion customers with aircraft sellers and vice versa. “We still take orders for the A310-300P2F. The smaller-size wide-body is still an attractive niche player, but is currently limited by feedstock constraints,” he said.

The EADS EFW plant in Dresden received something of a setback this summer when it was confirmed that the A320/A321 passenger-to-freighter conversion program would not continue. A separate joint venture company, Airbus Freighter Conversion GmbH, had been established with two Russian partners, United Aircraft Corporation and IRKUT, to market the program.

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