The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused several shifts within commercial aviation. One of the most significant is the contrast between passenger and freight revenues. While passenger demand has dropped sharply since March 2020, the cargo sector has boomed. As such, conversion projects such as the Boeing 777-300ERSF are becoming increasingly significant. This is an aircraft that French flag carrier Air France could be interested in.
An interesting option
Speaking today at the virtual World Aviation Festival, Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith revealed that the French flag carrier’s cargo operations have blossomed amid the global health crisis. Of course, this has been the case for many carriers, but Air France has actually managed to achieve cargo revenues that Smith states are “superior to 2019.”
With these high freight load factors in mind, one wonders whether Air France should expand its cargo fleet. After all, most of its additional cargo has been flown by passenger configured aircraft, an increasingly common phenomenon worldwide over the last year.
With this growth in mind, Smith stated that “whether we choose to convert some existing passenger aircraft or bring in additional cargo airplanes [is] yet to be seen.” If Air France opts for a conversion-based strategy, one option that it might consider is Boeing’s upcoming 777-300ERSF. Although this is not an immediate ambition for Smith, it is an option that the French flag carrier might consider in the longer term. Indeed, he added that:
“There is a program, that’s relatively new, to convert 777-300ERs into full freighters. This is in Israel, however the lead time to secure a slot to convert an airplane is quite long. It’s not something we’re ready to do as of today, but it is an interesting option.”
What is the Boeing 777-300ERSF?
The Boeing 777-300ERSF (Extended Range Special Freighter) conversion program was launched by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and leasing giant GECAS in October 2019. The scheme came about partly due to a predicted surplus of passenger 777-300ERs once the 777X enters service. It will see these aircraft converted for a second lease of life as specialized freighters.
A year later, GECAS announced that Kalitta Air would be the launch customer for the new 777-300ERSF. The following month, Cargolux also expressed an interest in the type. If it were to take on the aircraft, this would see it deviate from its existing all-747 fleet.
The project reached a significant milestone last week when GECAS announced that the halfway point for the first conversion had been reached six months ahead of schedule. This may mean that we see it in the skies earlier than expected. When Kalitta announced that it would be the type’s launch customer, its provisional date was 2022.
Air France’s dedicated cargo aircraft
The 777-300ERSF will not be Boeing’s first cargo-carrying triple-seven variant. Indeed, it delivered its first 777F to none other than Air France in February 2009. According to Planespotters.net, the French flag carrier’s cargo division currently operates two of these aircraft. The planes have plenty of use left in them, with an average age of 12.5 years old.
In years gone by, Air France has also flown cargo-specialized aircraft from Boeing’s legendary 747 family. These were from the -200F, -400BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter), and -400ERF (Extended Range Freighter) variants of the ‘Queen of the Skies.’ It has even operated Combi versions (with an ‘M’ suffix) of the 747-200, -300, and -400. However, for now, the future of its airfreight operations seems set to be found in twin-engine designs like the 777.
What do you make of Air France’s potential interest in converted Boeing 777 freighters? Will the cargo sector continue to boom in a post-pandemic world? Let us know your thoughts and predictions in the comments.