Benin Airlines to promote Utilicraft in MEA

Benin Airlines has won the Middle East and African distribution and final assembly rights for Utilicraft Aerospace’s FF-1080-300 freighter.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  January 3, 2006

Benin Airlines has won the Middle East and African distribution and final assembly rights for Utilicraft Aerospace’s FF-1080-300 freighter. The company has already ordered 100 of the turboprop aircraft, with 100 options, in a deal worth US $1.35 billion. It is now looking for potential customers, as well as for a site for a final assembly plant somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. The Utilicraft is specifically designed to carry up to 10 tonnes of cargo on sectors as long as 2000 km. It can land on short unmade-up runways and it also boasts operating costs that are just 35% of comparably sized freighters. As such, the plane is ideally suited for emerging markets, particularly for carrying perishable goods into a central hub for consolidation onto a larger long-haul aircraft. “You need to be able to send fresh produce to market at least daily,” said Luke Butler, president director general, Benin Airlines. “That means if you are using a 747 freighter, you have got to get at least 100 tonnes everyday as… if the freight goes every other day, then the perishable produce is already a day old.” Benin Airlines, which is planning to launch passenger and freight services in a few months’ time, will operate a number of the Utilicrafts to feed its own fleet of two 747-200Fs. However, the airline will also offer Utilicrafts for sale and wet or dry lease to other operators across the Middle East and Africa. It is already anticipating strong demand for the plane driven by the region’s booming cargo market. “We ordered the aircraft because we believe we can use 50 aircraft in Africa and 50 aircraft in the Middle East,” said Butler. The Utilicraft will be competing against Russian-made freighters and converted passenger aircraft, such as 727s. However, as a purpose-built freighter, the Utilicraft is lighter and more fuel efficient than its rivals. This has come through the use of up-to-date avionics and Pratt & Whitney engines, and weight savings derived from its freight-specific design. For instance, unlike converted passenger planes, only the cockpit of the Utilicraft is pressurised, which reduces it weight and costs. “The Utilicraft is really purposed designed and so it does not have a lot of things that would be necessary if it was a passenger aircraft,” said Butler. The aeroplane is also able to interline smoothly with 747 or MD-11 freighters, as it can carry 10 LD3 containers or widebody maindeck pallets. As such, there is no need to repack cargo before it is loaded onto a larger aircraft. The Utilicraft also complies with European standard noise abatement regulations, which means it can land at night in Europe now and at other airports that may introduce similar rules in the future. “If you take a 20-30 year view, many of the countries that do not now have curfews will have curfews,” said Butler. “This is an aircraft that will not be affected by them.” The Utilicraft is now in the final design stages with the first prototype being manufactured at the company’s facility in New Mexico, USA. A series of flight tests is then scheduled to begin in June, with FAA certification targeted for June 2007. As part of its deal, Benin Airlines can build a final assembly plant to complete its aircraft somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. The aircraft would first be built and certified in New Mexico before being dissembled and flown across to the final assembly plant. The planes would then be re-assembled and have any customisation performed, before they received their final certification. “Each aircraft will attract a $750,000 final assemble fee from Utilicraft,” noted Butler. The $25 million facility, which would have around 250 employees to start off with, would also have the potential to become a full manufacturing facility. As such, Benin Airlines is hopefully about attracting investment in the plant, especially from within the GCC. “If there were groups in the Middle East, particularly in the UAE or the surrounding Gulf states, that thought they would like to see a final assembly facility that can become a full manufacturing facility, we would be very interested,” said Butler.

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