Singapore Technologies (ST) Engineering’s Aerospace arm (Chalet B18) is looking to bank on the expanding demand for narrowbody passenger-to-freighter (P2F) solutions and is putting its money on its Airbus A321/320 portfolio.
According to a report by Cargo Facts Consulting, the worldwide narrowbody cargo fleet is expected to increase 4 percent annually to 1,170 aircraft by 2037, making up 41.6 percent of the world’s cargo aircraft. Today, these aircraft account for 38.2 percent of the total numbers. By 2037, the aircraft types would have streamlined to a majority of either the Boeing 737-700/800 or its Airbus A321/320 counterparts, amounting to 563 and 430 aircraft, respectively.
“Currently the narrowbody fleet is dominated by the Boeing 757 and Classic 737, all of which are due to be phased out over time. The A321 is the closest to the 757 as it has 14 positions, and we feel that it is the natural replacement for it,” said Dr. Yip Yuen Cheong, executive vice president, aerospace engineering and manufacturing, ST Engineering Aerospace.
He recognized that one of the growth factors is the rise of e-commerce around the world that is driving the hub-and-spoke operations for any cargo operator, which requires narrowbody aircraft to forward the cargo to regional distribution hubs.
Earlier this year at the Singapore Airshow, Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), the joint venture between ST Engineering Aerospace and Airbus, secured a contract to convert 10 A321-200s for lessor Vallair. Conversion for the first A321 is due to start by September/October. Modifications and certifications of the first aircraft would take around a year before redelivery by the end of 2019. The A321P2F has 14 main-deck positions, and the A320P2F has 11.
Yip said there would be some learning curve following the certification of Form 1 for the first aircraft, getting the engineering and production team familiar with the new products. “Based on our experience it will take about two years before we can ramp up the production rate. We hope to churn out the balance of the nine aircraft over the period of two to three years,” he said, adding that in the long run the company hopes to have five production lines around the world for this program, with two each in Asia and America, and one in Europe.
ST Engineering Aerospace pitched the A321/320 P2F idea to Airbus, while the former was still working on the A330 P2F program sometime after 2012.
“We suggested to them to embark on an A321 P2F program together. We felt the timing window is crucial, as the Boeing 737 NG P2F was about to be launched then; we do not wish to take too long or else the 737 NG will soak up the market,” Yip said. “It’s a natural progression that we work on the A320 P2F after the A330 P2F, considering the relationship with Airbus and similar systems in between the two aircraft.”
He revealed that there is interest from some Asian clients, but there haven’t been any commitments yet.
Yip is still open to new P2F projects and is always looking for opportunities, not only with Boeing and Airbus. “We were once looking at the Embraer’s E195. There will always be competition by other firms whenever there is a new program, but it boils down to the company that has the most value and expertise.”
Beyond aircraft conversion, ST Engineering Aerospace is now exploring on the single-pilot freighter program, which is still at the preliminary stages. The company is talking to partners, manufacturers, and operators to gauge their interest. Yip said a deciding factor is where to attain certification, but he thinks the company would first do so in Europe, as both Singapore and EASA have the Working Arrangement on Airworthiness Certification (WA-AC) that validate and accept each other’s design certifications and approvals of aircraft parts and aircraft modifications.
He added that ST Engineering Aerospace has done quite a bit of work with aircraft interiors such as Airbus floor panels and aircraft lavatories in Europe and U.S., and is looking to further develop that business. “We hope to seek more partners and go further in this field.”