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Qantas to add more A321 cargo jets for e-commerce

Qantas Airways said Thursday it intends to acquire three additional Airbus A321 converted freighters to upgrade its fleet as it seeks to capitalize on soaring growth of e-commerce shipments in Australia. 

The airline deployed the first A321 freighter ever produced in October 2020 and now operates three of the aircraft in domestic operations for Australia Post. It said last August it would take six more A321 passenger jets that had been retrofitted to carry large cargo containers on the main deck. The new tranche of planes, expected to enter service by mid-2026, would bring Qantas’ A321 fleet to 12 aircraft. 

The A321s will replace five Boeing 737-300/400 freighters that are approaching the end of their economic life and grow the fleet.

Elbe Flugzeugwerke GmbH, a joint venture between Airbus and Singapore-based ST Engineering, is retrofitting the A321s. An EFW spokesperson said Qantas will obtain the planes through a leasing company that will be its direct customer. 

Each A321 converted freighter can carry more than 25 tons, 10 tons more than the older 737s, and is about 30% more fuel efficient per ton of freight carried. 

And the commitment to invest in the freight division extends beyond standard-size jets. Qantas is converting two of its A330 widebody passenger jets into freighters to support the shift toward consumers shopping online. 

EFW is also converting the A330s. The aerospace manufacturer is currently converting one of the A330s at its manufacturing facility in Dresden, Germany, and the second plane arrived recently for its appointment. 

Modifying used passenger jets to carry cargo is a complex process that involves stripping out the seats, galleys and toilets, replacing the existing cabin door with a larger freight door, strengthening the floor and installing a cargo-handling system.

Qantas held an open house and charity auction of items from theA330’s cabin, including a bar cart, exit signs and a business-class suite, before it departed for Germany. It said the auction was a fun way to offer enthusiasts their own piece of Qantas history and a creative way to demonstrate the airline’s commitment to cutting landfill waste.

The planes are expected to enter service this year. 

One A330 will be utilized by Australia Post and the other will operate in Qantas Freight’s international network. The A330 has more than double the capacity of other dedicated freighters operated by Qantas for the national postal service.

Qantas returned to profitability in the first half of the 2023 fiscal year after three years and AU$7 billion ($4.7 billion) of losses, with record pretax income of $711 million, according to its financial results. 

Qantas Freight continued to deliver earnings well above pre-COVID levels, although cargo revenue was down 12% to $552 million. While international yields are softening with the return of more capacity to the market and improved ocean shipping conditions, a permanent increase in e-commerce domestically has created a structural shift in freight volumes and earnings, the company said.

Qantas Freight has a fleet of 18 aircraft, as well as turnkey leases for two Boeing 747s from Atlas Air to connect Australia with key international freight hubs.

More FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Qantas converting more aircraft for freight to meet e-commerce demand