Boeing goes for heavyweight title with 737-800 conversion programme

Chris Kjelgaard looks at Boeing's move into converting 737-800 aircraft and ponders what this means for the OEM's future in the market.

Chris Kjelgaard looks at Boeing's move into converting 737-800 aircraft and ponders what this means for the OEM's future in the market.

Long expected and finally confirmed by the manufacturer on February 23, Boeing’s decision to launch a passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion programme for the 737-800 may provide pause for thought for AEI and other third-party engineering companies already offering or considering such conversions for this ubiquitous 737 model.

While AEI’s existing Boeing 737-800SF conversion programme creates an aircraft with a highly respectable main-deck payload of up to 52,000lb (23,587kg), Boeing said its own 737-800BCF would offer a maximum cargo payload of 52,800lb (23,950kg).

With a lower but still useful maximum payload of 21,650kg, the 737-800BCF will be able to fly revenue routes of 1,992 nautical miles (3,690 kilometers), according to Boeing – enough range to fly from Dubai to Istanbul, New York to Caracas, or Hong Kong to Jakarta.

AEI’s 737-800SF freighter conversion programme is already successful, launch customer GECAS ordering up to 20 conversions on June 23, 2015. Subsequently, on October 26, Aircraft Capital Group ordered 15 conversions and optioned another 15.

But with firm orders for 30 737-800BCF conversions and commitments for another 25 from seven customers already in hand when it announced it would launch the programme, Boeing – which holds the intellectual property and the detailed design data for the 737-800 – looks set to dominate the 737-800 P2F conversion market in the longer term.

Both the AEI and the Boeing P2F conversions of 737-800s offer main-deck capacity for 11 full-size (88-by-125-inch) AAA unit load devices and one half-size pallet, each conversion providing 5,000 cubic feet (141.5 cubic meters) of main-deck cargo space.

AEI hasn’t said if its 737-800SF conversion also offers belly-hold cargo capacity as well, but Boeing said the 737-800BCF would have two lower-lobe cargo compartments, together providing more than 1,540 cubic feet (43.7 cubic meters) of additional space for revenue cargo.

The location where Boeing announced that it would launch the 737-800 Boeing Converted Freighter (737-800BCF) indicated clearly from where the company expects much of the demand for the 737-800BCF to arise.

Stan Deal, SVP Commercial Aviation Services for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, announced the new programme in Shanghai, China’s largest city and the vast nation’s second-largest population catchment area after the huge Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Dongguan-Macao urban agglomeration near Hong Kong.

Although the 737-800 is the first 737NG model for which the manufacturer has chosen to launch a P2F conversion programme, Boeing said that the 737-800BCF would offer extensive commonality with other 737 Classic and 737NG models.

It also said it expected the 737-800BCF to prove particularly useful to domestic express-shipment carriers because of its payload, range, reliability and efficiency.

Indeed, although the 737-800BCF offers 175km less range with typical payload than the third-party 737-700SF, that aircraft’s maximum payload at maximum range is only 19,800kg, according to Boeing – 1,850kg less than that offered by Boeing’s new 737NG conversion over a range of 3,690km.

The older 737-400SF has a maximum payload of just under 20,500kg at a maximum range of 3,228km, the manufacturer said. That is 1,650kg less cargo than the 737-800BCF can carry over a range 470km greater. The stalwart 737-300SF, meanwhile, can carry a 19,200kg cargo payload over a range of 3,040km.

Deal said Boeing foresaw Chinese domestic cargo carriers accounting for nearly one-third of the more than 1,000 737-size converted freighters Boeing reckons will be needed over the next 20 years.

Indeed, along with mighty GECAS, already the launch customer for AEI’s 737-800SF freighter and also a launch customer for the 737-800BCF, at least three launch customers for the Boeing conversion programme are Chinese airlines.

Potentially the biggest Chinese launch customer for the 737-800BCF is Hangzhou-based YTO Airlines, which has ordered 10 conversions and signed commitments for 10 more.

Beijing-based China Postal Airlines has ordered 10 conversions and Shenzhen-based SF Airlines has given commitments for an unspecified number of conversions.

Other launch customers include Cargo Air, based in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, which has signed commitments for an unspecified number of 737-800BCF conversions.

Additionally, one undisclosed customer has ordered BCF conversions of five 737-800s and signed commitments for two more, while another has given commitments for an unspecified number.

Aircraft leasing and financing giant GECAS, which has placed orders for five 737-800BCF conversions, will be the first customer to take delivery of a converted aircraft.

GECAS – which is already leasing 80 freighters to airlines, more than 60 of the aircraft being converted passenger jets – is providing the first 737-800 passenger jet to undergo the BCF conversion. It expects to take delivery of the freighter in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Boeing said it would perform its 737-800BCF conversions “at select facilities located near conversion demand”. It added that Boeing Shanghai would be one of the facilities performing them – no surprise there, given Boeing’s expectation that China will lead the 737-800BCF market.

The modifications Boeing will make in converting passenger 737-800s to freighters will include installing a large main-deck cargo door, a cargo-handling system and providing on-board accommodation for up to four non-flying crew members or passengers.

Should Boeing’s current forecast of the number of 737-size freighters required over the next 20 years prove to be substantially lower than the number actually required, customers needn’t be too concerned that there won’t be enough candidate 737-800 passenger jets around which could be converted into freighters.

By the end of January, Boeing had sold 5,003 Boeing 737-800s as commercial (or military VIP) passenger aircraft, plus another 21 as BBJ2 business jets. To date, this total makes the 737-800 Boeing’s best-selling 737-family model by a very wide margin.

To date, the manufacturer has also sold another 102 737-800s as flying platforms for military systems, in the form of P-8A Poseidon jets ordered by the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force and P-8Is purchased by the Indian Navy.

So it’s conceivable that one day Boeing could be converting 737-800s into freighters not only for commercial cargo operators, but also for some of the world’s armed forces.

In the form of the 737-800BCF, the 737-800SF, the 737-800C Combi (another AEI conversion programme) and other possible future 737-800 conversion offerings, the 737-800 appears set to become one of the world’s most widely used single-aisle jet freighters throughout the next 30 years or more.


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