Written by: Ryan Gibbons.
MIAMI — As many Boeing 767s are meeting their ends having flown countless hours over the years, they have found a new solution to keep flying: being sold or leased to other, younger cargo airlines, where they are quickly being absorbed into new fleets. Cargo airlines such as Amazon Prime Air and Kalitta, among others, have been quick to acquire these older aircraft.
Boeing’s 767 has been used as a cargo aircraft for quite some time, specifically since 1998, when Boeing began converting some 767-200s to 767-200SF (SF standing for “Special Freighter”), by adding cargo-capable doors, safety equipment, and deck floors. However, Boeing did not initially offer this aircraft up front; it only offered conversions of older 767-200s.
These -200SFs have proven their worth over time, and became a new title for many -200s and -200ERs: of the 249 aircraft originally built for passenger operations, 58 still remain in cargo service today – no small feat for an aircraft that entered service in 1982.
However, it was not until 1995 that Boeing began flying 767s built for cargo operations with the 767-300F entering service with UPS. Based off of the successful -300ER, this aircraft quickly became a workhorse for many premier cargo airlines, finding homes at UPS and FedEx. In fact, the -300F is the only civilian variant of the Boeing 767 still in production today with 65 in the Boeing backlog.
The 767 has become (and remained) a valuable asset for young cargo airlines for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being its wide capability. These airlines typically serve short routes with medium loads – a niche well suited by these 767s.
The 767-200SF offers 99,000lbs of cargo capacity, while the -300F offers over 116,000lbs – both suitable for these smaller cargo airlines who do not necessarily need the gargantuan capacities of the MD-11 freighters like those used by FedEx and UPS.
In addition, these aircraft offer a 3,225nmi range, perfect for an airline like Prime Air whose focus is towards domestic operations. Boeing also proudly notes the 99.2% reliability of the 767-300F.
However, far more important than the capability advantages of the Boeing 767 for these smaller cargo airlines is the financial aspect. By purchasing or leasing used 767s and converting them into freighters, these small airlines avoid the financial strains of purchasing new aircraft.
A new 767-300F cost around $185 million – a hefty purchase price for an airline like Kalitta, who made an estimated $22 million in revenue in 2015 and is still recovering from previous years of fallow profits.
However, a used 767-300ER (of the same age as those used by Amazon Prime Air) costs around $10 million (of course, varying from case to case). Even with the costs of converting a passenger 767 to a cargo format, a used aircraft is much more economical for smaller cargo airlines, allowing them to obtain a functional and reasonable aircraft with good performance specifications for a fraction of the price.
The benefits of used and/or converted 767s for younger and smaller cargo airlines have shown: Amazon Prime Air, in the course of just one year since its first flight, operates 31 Boeing 767s, with 18 additional aircraft currently being converted, and 18 more aircraft still on order.
Kalitta operates a much more modest fleet of 2 converted aircraft, with an additional 3 on order. Numerous other converted Boeing 767s are spread amongst other small cargo airlines, as well as with larger cargo operators, such as the air divisions of UPS and FedEx.
With many of the active cargo and converted 767s in operation by both large and small airlines beginning to age, it is becoming clear that a new option will have to be considered in the near future.
Prime Air’s fleet averages 24 years old – and while the entire fleet may not be in desperate need of replacement, quite a few of these aircraft are at or exceeding 30 years of age, near the end of a lifespan for these jets.
It remains unlikely that the replacement will be newly purchased 767-300Fs from Boeing, as the price tag is unjustifiable for airlines like Prime Air. It is also unlikely that these airlines will pursue other types aircraft that may be nearing passenger service retirement, such as the Boeing 777.
What these airlines may be eyeing are the 767-300ERs nearing their ends with passenger airlines such as Delta (who plans to replace some with Airbus A350s and A330neos) or American Airlines (who will be retiring 13 in the coming year or two), which have been kept in good condition, or even some ageing A330s that Airbus now offers conversions for (for example, American plans to retire its fleet acquired from U.S. Airways in the coming years).
It is improbable that these airlines will opt for larger passenger aircraft, such as the MD-11 or Boeing 747-8F, as they primarily operate medium payload, shorter routes, optimized for aircraft such as the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330.
Talks of new cargo variations of aircrafts could also disrupt this market: if Boeing does go through with a cargo Boeing 787 in the early 2020s (which could likely have a payload capacity similar to a cargo Boeing 767), airlines operating newer Boeing 767-300Fs could definitely jump for the efficiency and range offered by the Boeing 787, possibly leading to middle-aged 767s flooding the market at low prices attractive to these smaller airlines.
In such a quickly growing industry (Boeing predicts the air cargo industry doubling in the next 20 years), almost anything is possible; except, arguably, predicting the future of air cargo.
This industry can change overnight, and fluctuate wildly. However, at least in the near future, it can be safely said that used, converted Boeing 767s will continue to be an important asset, and even a backbone, for Prime Air and Kalitta, offering huge financial and performance benefits and maintaining itself as a flagship for the industry.