How Passenger Aircraft Are Converted To Cargo Aircraft

Aircraft can undergo many different stages in their life cycle. They can start off flying for one airline before transferring to another. In some cases, older aircraft can undergo conversions to cargo aircraft. Let’s take a look at this process.

Prime Air
Prime Air’s 737 previously flew for Jet Airways as a passenger aircraft. Photo: Joanna Bailey at Simple Flying

Why conversions happen

To understand the process, it is important to understand the need and importance of aircraft conversions. Converted aircraft begin their life flying passengers. After a while, however, the aircraft can become outdated. Airlines will usually order new planes to replace old ones since retrofits and maintenance can sometimes be more costly than inducting a new aircraft into the fleet.

Delta 767s
Delta is replacing their 767s with A330neos as the 767-300ERs reach the end of their lifespan. Photo: Delta

Passenger to cargo conversions can add years onto an aircraft’s life. This is a huge deal, since used aircraft are often much cheaper than new aircraft. Moreover, a converted aircraft for an aircraft type that is out of production can allow for an airline to grow their capacity without having to sacrifice fleet commonality.

The process

If you would like to read a very thorough analysis of the process, there is an academic paper available from the Congress of the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences on the topic. Here are some of the big modifications that have to be made for conversion.

Gutting the interior

Since the aircraft won’t carry passengers anymore, the aircraft will need to be completely gutted. All of the seats, overhead bins, carpeting, consoles, galleys, and passenger lavatories will be removed from the aircraft. From this, the interior will be installed based on the airline’s needs.

Norwegian Interior
The passenger interiors will be ripped out for the conversion. Photo: Boeing

Since cargo doesn’t need an emergency exit, the passenger doors are deactivated. However, the aircraft frame also has to be fitted with a new door for cargo loading. On most aircraft, this door is off to the side and opens up to reveal the large cargo compartment.

Boeing 737 BCF
A Boeing 737 converted freighter showing the open main cargo door. Photo: Boeing
Structural changes

The aircraft will need to receive reinforced floors to handle the weight of the freight. Beams and posts help increase the durability and strength of the cargo bed in order to handle the cargo. In addition, there are changes to aircraft fire detection systems, ventilation, and temperature control. This is because freighters have different requirements than passenger aircraft and must comply with different standards.

FedEx 767
A FedEx Express 767-300F. Photo: FedEx

Some of these structural changes help balance the aircraft and keep it from tipping over.

Can all aircraft be converted?

Aircraft conversion lines exist for several aircraft and were built into the design of others. This means that some aircraft simply cannot be converted because there is not enough demand to justify a conversion line. Furthermore, some aircraft, like the MD-90, are just not good freighter aircraft. These aircraft usually lack sufficient range for cargo flights, are quite old, and, in some cases, do not meet noise restrictions. As a result, there are no MD-90 lines and even the MD-80 lines haven’t been successful, as reported by Air Cargo News.

On the other hand, some have been more successful including A300s and 767s.

UPS 767f
UPS flies several converted 767s. Photo: UPS


Passenger to freighter conversions can help alleviate a cargo aircraft shortage. This is because older passenger aircraft can enter service in a new life as cargo freighters. The process has many steps and requires significant modifications but can be incredibly beneficial to airlines and lessors.

What do you think about converted aircraft? Let us know in the comments!