How Are Passenger Aircraft Converted To Freighters?

Converted freighters have long been a popular and cost-effective way to build more cargo aircraft. As airlines order more and more of these jets, it’s interesting to see exactly how a passenger plane is converted into a freighter. Here’s a look at the process.

Amazon Air Boeing 767-3P6(ER)(BDSF)
The Boeing 767 has been one of the most popular converted freighter programs globally. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Out with the old

The first step after taking delivery of a former passenger airliner is to remove almost all of the interiors. This will mean the removal of all seats, bathrooms, galleys, (plugging) windows, and even more structural aspects like the roof and floor cladding and internal walls. The goal here is to leave the fuselage as empty as possible for subsequent modifications to take place.

At the same time, the former passenger jet will lose all its operator’s markings and be repainted white. This makes it easier for the new operator to add their own livery to the plane or simply fly a white one if needed.

AN-124
Cargo aircraft need to have room to accommodate large pallets to maximize capacity (An124 pictured). Photo: Getty Images

Once the interiors are gone, engineers get to work on essential modifications needed to make the plane a freighter.

Put in a door

One of the major hallmarks of a freighter aircraft is the presence of a central door for loading and unloading pallets. Since passenger aircraft only have several smaller doors for travelers and some larger ones for belly cargo, companies have to build a new one in the fuselage.

This modification is what requires a Supplemental Type Certification from regulators since this will see a portion of the fuselage will be removed and replaced.

DHL 737 Freighter
The central cargo door is critical to the conversion process, separating it from preighters. Photo: Getty Images

Additionally, the aircraft floor will need to be modified to take the weight of the pallets and add floor rollers to make transportation easier. While the process can take a while, after receiving an STC, companies usually create an assembly line for conversions. The process takes 100-120 days from arrival to delivery for certain types.

According to Business Insider, some conversion companies, such as Boeing itself, will upgrade the cockpit of aging jets to make them more modern. This was true for the 767, which was two decades by the time it reached conversion time and required an upgrade.

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More coming

The pandemic has only exacerbated the need for freighter jets. The early months of 2020 saw airlines removing seats to crate makeshift preighters, boosting the market for converted freighters. Now, several companies are vying to create the first 777 converted freighter, hundreds of which are up for retirement in the next few years.

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IAI is the furthest ahead in its 777 conversion process and has racked up dozens of orders already. Photo: GE/IAI

For now, airlines globally are closely watching the converted freighter market. With demand showing no signs of slowing, cargo might become a major new revenue stream for airlines, and freighters are a big part of that change.

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

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