Changing rooms

Consuming 40,000 hours of man power in four months, converting a passenger aircraft to a freighter is a sure fire way of keeping costs down.

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By  Laura Barnes Published  July 31, 2005

|~||~||~|Last month, Emirates took delivery of its first A310-300 freighter at a ceremony held at EFW’s massive facility in Dresden, Germany. The event was the latest in a series of handovers to Middle East carriers for EFW, which is seeing strong demand from the region. Etihad, Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir and Qatar Airways have also all taken delivery of freighters converted in Dresden lately, as they look to ramp up their cargo capacity in a cost effective manner. EFW, which is owned by EADS, is the sole conversion facility for Airbus A300 and A310 passenger widebody aircraft. Since its inception in 1991, the company has performed 114 conversions for 22 airlines worldwide. FedEx is by far the biggest customer, accounting for more than 50% of the conversions undertaken so far. Conversions are attractive options for airlines looking to increase their cargo capacity, as they cost much less than buying a new build freighter. As such, with the global boom in the air cargo market, EFW is ramping up its production to keep up with demand. This year, the facility expects to complete 12 conversions, followed by 15 next year and then 20 in 2007. “Over 70% of the total freighter market is converted aircraft, mainly because of finance,” explains Wolfgang Schmid, director of sales freighter conversion, EFW. “It costs around US $8.5 million for a conversion excluding the price of the aircraft itself, so it makes sense to buy a converted aircraft as it still has a long work life left,” he adds. Middle East carriers are increasing capitalising on these economies in order to ramp up their cargo operations. Royal Jordanian, for instance, has received two converted Airbus A310-300s from EFW, while EgyptAir has also taken delivery of two A300-200Fs and a -600F. Etihad Airways is operating a converted A300-600F and Qatar Airways is likewise flying an A300-600F, one of three converted freighters it has on order. Similarly, Emirates will receive another two freighters from EFW, following on from the A310 it took delivery of last month. The A310 has already been put into service by the Emirates flying to Islamabad, Istanbul, Chenin and Amman. It is the first Airbus freighter to be operated by the airline, and it is also the first all-cargo aeroplane that Emirates has owned outright. “We already have six Boeing 747 freighters on lease but this time we opted to purchase aircraft,” comments Ram Menen, senior vice president of cargo, Emirates. “This is because when you are building up a fleet it is important to have commonality, and as our pilots already have a lot of experience on Airbus aircraft it makes sense to invest in these type of aeroplanes,” he explains. “Our cargo business is growing and we felt the need to supplement our widebody belly capacity. The A310 is a workhorse, it just goes on and on and on, and as such it made more sense to buy a converted freighter, as there are still a lot of years left in a converted aircraft. Also, when you place it alongside a brand new freighter you cannot tell the difference, it looks as good as new,” Menen adds. The aircraft that EFW performs conversions on are usually 10-15 years old, which means that they can continue flying as freighters for up to 15 years more. The conversion process usually takes 40,000 manhours to complete and around four months of downtime. This work is carried out in four stages inside EFW’s hangars, which can currently hold up to four aircraft simultaneously. The production area at the base in Dresden is spread over 65,000 m² on approximately 250,000m² of land.||**|||~||~||~|The first phase of the conversion process, which takes place in a dedicated hangar, is the removal stage, which allows for an inspection of the aircraft. Firstly, the engines are taken off and then dummy weights are put in their place in order to maintain the balance of the aircraft. Then the interior is stripped bare, with everything, including the seats, lighting and cockpit being taken out. The aircraft then undergoes a comprehensive inspection in order to find any areas of corrosion or structural damage. “It is the ideal time for an airline to perform these tests due to the long downtime of the aircraft,” says Michael Muth, senior manager, product program, EFW. “Additionally, as everything is being removed right down to the shell of the fuselage, it allows for a much more exact and in depth maintenance check. Everything is exposed so there is no better time to do it,” he adds. Phase two of the process is known as the structural stage. This is when the larger structures, such as side panels and flooring, are removed. Further checks for internal corrosion are performed at this stage, covering areas that cannot be fully examined in the phase one tests. With the panels and flooring removed, the wiring is also exposed, which enables engineers to upgrade or overhaul the wiring system. “Before the flooring and panels are placed in the aircraft we update the wiring. This usually stays the same with only slight updates to the system being made, however, with some customers we completely gut out the wiring and install a new system,” comments Muth. “For FedEx, for example, we completely rewire all of the aircraft in order to have commonality across the entire fleet… This then means that when it comes to future maintenance on the fleet it is a lot easier to perform as all the planes have the same wiring network,” Muth adds. Once the structural and systems components are removed, the conversion kit can be put into place. This includes the installation of a 141x101 inch cargo side door and a reinforced flooring to cope with cargo loads. Also included in the conversion kit are ball mats and roller tracks, which are used to load containers onto the aircraft. Some sections of the frame are also replaced with reinforced carbon fibre components in order to further strengthen the aircraft. For Emirates, EFW also configured the A310 freighter to hold 96 inch pallets side by side, rather than the traditional 88 inch side-by-side arrangement. This set-up, which had not been used previously, increases the space in the cargohold and enables Emirates to use standardised pallets across its entire fleet. “We only use 96 inch pallets, so it was important to try and get commonality across pallet sizes. The A310F usually only allows for side by side 88 inch pallets but different pallet sizes across the fleet means that goods have to be transported from one pallet size to another, meaning time is lost on the ground,” says Menen. “Therefore, before the conversion process, we looked at the aircraft and realised that there was no reason why you could not have 96 inch pallets side by side. Originally, there was a lot of unused space in the aircraft, and this is not what makes money,” he adds. Once the wiring and infrastructure changes have been made to the aircraft, it undergoes the fourth and final phase of the conversion process, which is final testing. No flight tests are carried out, but a series of mechanical and electronic tests are undertaken on the ground to ensure the wiring is configured correctly and that the panels are securely attached before the freighter is handed over to the carrier. These handover can be big press events or low-key occasions, but either way it is clear that EFW will be holding many more of them in the years to come. More customers are also likely to be travelling to the event from the Middle East, as airlines in the region strive to cash in on the growth of air cargo as cost effectively as they can. “The acquisition of converted aircraft means airlines are also able to keep costs down. It is the ideal solution for air freight and also for us,” concludes Menen.||**||

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