By Scott Hamilton
June 3, 2020, © Leeham News: The conventional wisdom is there is no future for the Airbus A380 after front-line carriers remove the airplane from their fleets.
Singapore Airlines retired the first of five A380s a few years ago as 10-12 year leases expired. Only one found a new home, with ACMI operator HiFly. Others went to the scrap heap.
The virus crisis prompted several airlines to ground entire A380 fleets—perhaps permanently. Emirates Airline, with 115 in operation before COVID-19 essentially shut down world travel, said it would ground a big portion of its A380s. It took about a week before President Tim Clark said eventually these will return to service.
The A380 doesn’t make a good belly freighter airplane, like the Boeing 747. The lower cargo hold isn’t spacious. The elaborate landing gear takes space away from cargo. The upper deck is positioned a few inches too high to accommodate common containers. Loading cargo onto the upper deck is a logistical challenge.
Yet there is a P2F (passenger to freighter) option that is feasible and affordable. And it is being explored.
Response to the COVID crisis prompted several airlines across the globe to convert passenger airplanes to cargo-capable airplanes on the main deck.
In some cases, this involved covering passenger seats with protective plastic or similar material and loading boxes into the seats.
In other cases, seats were removed. Boxes were stacked along the cabin. The floors weren’t beefed up, but empty pallets were often installed to serve as cargo net fixtures. The pallets are then fixed to the seat tracks.
Figure 1. Empty PKC pallets serve as the base for cargo nets, strapping the cargo boxes to the required 9G restrain level. Source: Airbus
There are currently about 1,000 passenger airliners converted by these methods, according to Precision Conversions. About 300 of these are Boeing 777-200ERs/300ERs.
This method omits the high cost of adding a main deck cargo door. It also omits the need to beef up the floors, since in this crisis, cargo is lighter than the usual main-deck freight shipments.
Pallets or roller systems like those in use by FedEx on ATRs may be used.
Boeing, which is developing a system for its 7-Series passenger aircraft, says it is important to respect areas of some of its aircraft—notably at the far forward and aft end of the cabins—which are load-limited.
Lateral symmetrical loading is necessary for weight imbalance. This is most important on twin-aisle aircraft and less so on 737s and 757s.
It is also necessary load cargo properly to avoid sitting the airplane on its tail, a decades-long procedure.
But today’s Passenger-to-PaxFreighters (P2PF) configuration is only a temporary measure.
If there is to be a future secondary life for the A380, it doesn’t lie in a full-fledged P2F conversion. The cost, underlying design and logistical challenge are huge.
A solution may follow the concept of today’s conversions. A permanent solution for the A380 may lie in going back to the past.
Airborne Express was one of the early small package freight companies, an early competitor to what was then named Federal Express. While FedEx relied mainly on Boeing 727-100s converted from passenger to cargo airplanes with a main-deck door installed, Airborne used passenger airplanes in their original design. Specialized pallets were loaded through the No. 1 passenger door. Rollers allowed the small pallets to move to the rear of the airplane.
Airborne’s fleet over the years included the NAMC YS-11 turboprop, Sud Aviation Caravelle, Douglas DC-8 and DC-9 and Boeing 767-200. In each case, cargo was loaded through the passenger door.
The A380, with doors twice as wide as a DC-8 and wider than a 767, offers more flexibility for larger pallets and, of course, more cargo.
Airbus data for a conversion will be critical, Precision Conversion says. (Precision is not pursuing a conversion program; its plate is full with 757P2F and A321P2F projects.)
Airbus said A Passenger-to-Freighter conversion of the A380 would be technically feasible.
“In a post-COVID environment, we anticipate plentiful availability of feed stock for existing conversion programs, including the EFW A330P2F program,” a spokesman said. “If we see sufficient customer interest in a A380P2F we would investigate this possibility further. On top of that, we are proposing temporary Cargo adaptation for A380 like it has been done for A330/A350 in the post-COVID context and are supporting the return to service.”
The A380 is not as versatile as the Boeing 747-400F or Boeing 777-200F. But FedEx or UPS might find use for the A380 P2PF concept if the airplane is cheap enough to acquire. Both ordered the pure-freighter A380 when the program was launched. Both canceled their orders when the program ran into industrial delays.
Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent on Amazon, could be a target customer, for example.
The current market value for a 10-year old A380 is $73.07m and lease rate is $555/mo, estimates the appraisal firm ISHKA. A five-year-old model CMV is $117.15m and the monthly lease rate is $847.000 (half-life assumptions).
Loading would require a platform to reach the upper deck passenger door—perhaps something akin to the structures alongside rockets (though hardly as tall), or a docking station of some kind.
Doric Aviation manages the leases on 17 A380s, most with Emirate Airline. It also has the ex-Singapore airplane leased to ACMI operator HiFly.
Sibylle Pähler, managing director with the lessor, said HiFly converted the main deck to freight configuration as others have done. The upper deck is not being used. HiFly operated the planes from Portugal to the Dominican Republic and China.
Converting to an Airborne Express-style freighter is not something Doric is pursuing.
“It’s a remote option,” Pahler said. “It’s not something you can assume on a day-to-day basis. It’s strictly opportunistic.”
Even HiFly doesn’t expect this will be a model that can be pursued, she said, at least not now. It may be in the next 10-12 months.
Pahler said Doric asked Airbus about a full P2F conversion, but the cost was prohibitive. A pure P2F conversion wasn’t pursued for a mixture of technical and cost issues.