Hong Kong startup Fly Meta is the latest airline to acquire the new 777-300 converted freighter — expected to make its commercial debut this summer — in a further sign that cargo airlines remain confident about the airfreight market’s long-term direction despite a slump in demand since last spring.
AerCap Holdings said Tuesday that Fly Meta has signed a lease for four 777-300 Extended Range aircraft that will be converted from passenger to cargo configuration by Israel Aircraft Industries.
AerCap and Israel Aircraft Industries are partners in the first program to convert large widebody 777 aircraft into freighters. Boeing (NYSE: BA) produces new 777 freighters, but IAI is the first to launch an aftermarket program for rehabilitating used 777 passenger jets to carry containers on the main deck.
Close behind is Mammoth Freighters, a U.S. company established in 2021 with backing by funds managed by Fortress Investment Group. It announced on Twitter last week that its prototype 777-300 aircraft designated to prove conformity with Federal Aviation Administration standards has entered its overhaul hangar in Fort Worth, Texas, where the existing interior will soon be stripped for flight testing. The aircraft is the first of six slated for launch customer AviaAm Leasing.
Two 777-200 Long Range aircraft for Canadian all-cargo airline Cargojet previously were placed in separate production lines, said Brian McCarthy, Mammoth’s vice president of marketing and sales. Mammoth hopes to have one of the rebuilds completed by the end of the year, with FAA certification anticipated in the first quarter of 2024. The main difference is that the -300 is 33 feet longer and requires a separate certification, which could follow later next year.
Mammoth has 29 firm orders so far, including four from Cargojet and 19 from an undisclosed customer.
AerCap, which acquired GE Capital Aviation Services in 2021, is supplying IAI with 777s from its portfolio that have reached their useful life as passenger aircraft. The lessor says it has 20 firm orders for the 777-300 freighter and 10 options. Some airlines are ordering conversions directly with IAI.
The redesigned jets are dubbed the “Big Twin” because of the 777’s size and two GE-90 engines.
An IAI executive last summer was quoted as saying the company had more than 50 orders, but it is unclear if those are all firm commitments or who all the customers are. IAI could not be reached by publication time.
U.S.-based launch customer Kalitta Air is scheduled to receive the first 777 conversion from IAI in the first half of the year. The airline has ordered three conversions. Other customers include Cargojet and Taiwan’s EVA Air, which is sending three of its 777-300 passenger planes to be converted for its freighter division, per FlightGlobal.
The FAA has not yet certified IAI’s design modifications for the 777, which include a wider cargo door, reinforced flooring and interior side walls, a protective barrier for the cockpit, and cargo handling system. A delay in regulatory approval could push back the timetable for the Kalitta delivery.
The 777s have a large carrying capacity (the -200 has a maximum payload of 105 tons) and a wide fuselage that make them well suited for dense freight and light e-commerce shipments. The 777-300 has 14% more volume than a 747-400 and is 21% more fuel efficient. It is ideal for lightweight freight that takes up space because it has more interior volume but a similar weight payload compared to its sister.
Demand high for freighter conversions
Fly Meta was established last year by a group of aviation professionals. Essentially a sales organization at this point, it actually doesn’t fly any aircraft itself and has one aircraft in its fleet — a 31-year-old Boeing 747-400 freighter operated under a long-term rental by Air Atlanta Icelandic, according to tracking site Planespotters.com.
China’s zero-tolerance policy for COVID has limited factory production and air exports during the past year, but recent relaxation of wide-scale isolation requirements and travel restrictions is expected to result in increased commerce this year, notwithstanding a global economic slowdown.
Helen Chen, CEO of Fly Meta, expressed optimism the cargo market will grow steadily in the near future and that “the volume capabilities and greater cost efficiencies of the 777-300 freighter will give us a competitive advantage in the market.”
Boeing’s 20-year market forecast pegs air cargo volumes to grow at a compound annual rate of 4.1%. The express sector is expected to grow even faster. New momentum for air cargo transport is coming from double-digit annual growth in e-commerce, which promises expedited delivery to individual customers. More businesses are also willing to pay extra for freighter transport instead of relying on passenger networks because they want to guarantee reliable shipments without the increased risk of delays.
During AerCap’s Sept. 30 earnings briefing, CEO Aengus Kelly referred to supply chain certainty as a reason why the company continues to invest in all-cargo aircraft, especially as new entrants such as online retailers enter the market to control their transport assets.
“What we are seeing now is a filling out of the middle, where the commercial benefits of managing your supply chain in-house are becoming increasingly important and cargo aircraft are seen as another part of the critical infrastructure of large companies,” he said.
AerCap last year reserved slots with an Airbus engineering joint venture to convert 15 A321-200 narrowbody aircraft to cargo jets, with an option for a further 15 units.
The lessor on Tuesday also announced it has received its 50th Boeing 737-800 freighter from the manufacturer’s own conversion program. The aircraft has been leased to Brazilian passenger airline Gol, which last year began a freighter division ferrying packages for Latin American e-commerce giant Mercado Libre. The 737-800 and the A321 serve the same segment of the cargo market, typically providing regional shuttle service in express delivery networks.
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