Air cargo has sharply grown in recent years, reflecting the increasing demand for the fast delivery of online commerce. This trend has caused many operators to establish cargo services parallel to passenger operations and convert part of their fleet for these activities, gaining at least 20 productive years of their assets.
Conversion of a passenger aircraft into a cargo plane requires structural changes, strengthening floor beams, opening a larger loading door, and cargo handling systems that double, even triple, load capacity and expedite ground operations. As such changes are irreversible, they are performed only on aircraft phased out of passenger services.
Each model requires a unique conversion package, which must be certified by aviation authorities. The diversity of models and packages enables IAI to respond flexibly to market demand and feedstock availability. Converted aircraft can carry cargo twice, even three times in weight and volume, and do it much more efficiently than passenger jets modified for such missions.
These conversions are a unique speciality IAI has developed and proved through hundreds of successful projects and millions of operational flight hours flown in three decades. The company is certified to conduct passenger-to-freight (P2F) conversions of Boeing 737, 747, and 767 aircraft and is now finalizing the development and certification of the conversion of the first Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, marking the new entry into the wide-body freighter business. The demand for such aircraft is increasing worldwide as operators seek more efficient aircraft to replace the ageing and fuel-guzzling Boeing 747. The conversion of 777-300ER is unique to IAI, undertaken with AerCap as a strategic partner. The company is also developing conversions for other wide-body aircraft, such as the Airbus A330-300, which is expected to be available in a few years.
The complicated development process highlights IAI engineers’ extensive experience in aviation design, manufacturing, and testing. The aircraft is scheduled to make its maiden flight this year. The company is currently in the process of receiving certification for the converted aircraft from the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among others. Once the conversion process is approved, IAI will release the program to some of the conversion partners who teamed with IAI for this work. The company has already secured an order backlog for the new conversions, which would take about 130 days; in the end, the passenger aircraft will be turned into a freighter aircraft.
In 2021 IAI signed the first contract for the conversion of ten B777-300ER for Emirates. Dubai-based Emirates is the largest operator of B777-300ER aircraft worldwide, and Emirates SkyCargo is a leading player in the global air cargo industry.
This agreement between IAI, the worldwide leader of the cargo conversion industry, and the cargo division of Emirates is a testament to the strong ties between IAI and the UAE. In 2022 IAI also signed another contract to convert four such aircraft for the Canadian Cargojet company.
The aircraft will be converted at the new site established in Etihad Engineering’s MRO centre in Abu Dhabi, and the first conversion of the Emirates plane is expected to begin this year. The agreement with Emirates can provide passenger-to-freighter conversion services to more aircraft.
Etihad Engineering in Abu-Dhabi is one of the first locations undertaking the B777-300ERSF conversion. It is the largest commercial aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services provider in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords of 2020 opened the door for new opportunities and cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbours, bringing together IAI’s technological prowess and the advanced capabilities the UAE offers, providing skills, resources, and aircraft inventory.
IAI and Etihad Engineering have signed an agreement to establish a passenger-to-freighter conversion site for Boeing 777-3000ER aircraft. The centre in Abu Dhabi will be the largest and most advanced in the Middle East, to be certified by the UAE Civil Aviation Authority, the US Federal Aviation Administration, and the European Aviation Safety Agency.
The conversion centre in Abu Dhabi is an addition to other global cargo conversion sites that IAI operates, besides its existing conversion lines at the company’s campus at Ben Gurion International Airport.