Can Freighters Be Converted To Passenger Carriers?

We hear a lot about passenger planes getting converted into freighters. But we don’t hear much about the reverse procedure, converting freighters into passenger planes. There’s no reason why a freighter can’t be converted. However, there are several good reasons why it rarely happens.

Can freighters be converted to passenger aircraft? Photo: FedEx

Technically possible, but a time consuming and expensive process

It is generally far easier to take fittings and equipment out of a plane than to install them. Converting a passenger aircraft into a freighter largely involves gutting the cabin, reinforcing the floor, and perhaps cutting an extra big door to load pallets efficiently.

Most dedicated freighters are manufactured to these kinds of specs. A factory-fresh freighter also usually doesn’t have windows. So, if you are reversing the procedure, you’ve got an over-engineered cabin floor, insufficient galley and toilet fittings, not enough clean water or grey water tanks, and inadequate wiring to meet the inflight needs of a planeload of passengers. Plus, you’ll need to organize cutting out the windows and deal with the structural integrity issues that go with that. If there are big cargo doors, they’ll probably need to go. That’s all before you start to deal with issues like seats, overhead lockers, oxygen supply systems, air conditioning units, and HEPA filters.

In summary, it’s a complex, time-consuming, and expensive business. That alone goes a long way to explaining why you don’t often see freighter planes being converted into passenger planes.

Future passengers might want windows. Photo: DHL

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Oversupply of passenger planes makes the case for conversion uneconomic

If there was a worldwide shortage of aircraft, the conversions might be worth the effort and expense. But if there’s one thing the world isn’t short of right now, it’s spare passenger planes. Airline industry analysis and insight consultancy, Cirium, says there will continue to be far more aircraft than there is the demand for over the foreseeable future. The oversupply will come from new planes, existing operators downsizing fleets and returning planes to lessors, and existing owners simply parking their planes because they are surplus to requirements.

Simple supply and demand laws suggest that with so many surplus passenger planes around, the price for one will drop. That renders the case for converting freighters into passenger planes even more untenable.

Making adjustments for the downturn in aircraft demand that is expected to last for several years, Cirium still expects over 43,000 new planes to be delivered over the next two decades. That’s a lot of planes. The demand will be driven by long term growth, fleet expansions, and fleet renewal programs. But it’s a demand that aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer can easily handle.

The big cargo doors on most freighters might also be surplus to requirements on a passenger plane. Photo: Airbus

The booming freight sector needs all the planes it can get

The freighter sector is much smaller. Cirium expects there to be around 4,100 freighters in the sky by 2039. Unlike the passenger aircraft segment, the demand for new and converted freighters is strong. This demand is expected to further grow on the back of online shopping and e-commerce. If a freighter is working hard flying freight around the world, why would an owner want to convert it into a passenger aircraft and tap into all the problems that come with operating one?

If money is no object, you can surely find an aircraft overhaul business that will happily take a lot of it off your hands and convert a freighter into a passenger plane. But there are sound economic and practical reasons why it rarely happens. The aviation industry dynamics would need to be radically overhauled for the proposal to make any sense.

Can you think of any freighters that have been converted into passenger planes? Post a comment and let us know.