New Zealand’s vulnerability in terms of air and shipping services has been among the ominous consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Air NZ has parked its fleet of eight Boeing 777-200 and seven Boeing 777-300 and reckons they will never fly them again. All its international services are based on its Boeing 787-9 with the -10 on order. These are providing limited passenger and freight services.
Pure freighter services are provided by Qantas with its cargo Boeing 767s while other carriers offer ad hoc Boeing 747-400 cargo flights.
Shipping is even more compromised with limited and increasingly expensive services to North America and Asia.
In the US the situation is more dire because of the notoriously inefficient and slow-moving container ports on the US west coast. The east coast is much better but the shipping times via the Panama raise costs for shippers.
Is there an alternative? What about the Air New Zealand 777 fleet.
Several companies have launched programmes to convert the 777-300ER to freighters. The process is known as “P2F”- passengers to freighters. Israel Aerospace industries and General Electric Capital Aviation Services (GECAS) are leading the way.
The companies say cargo operations have offset airline losses due to the pandemic, as a lack of belly capacity resulting from the reduction in passenger flights and increasing demand in the express package delivery segment has resulted in a need for more dedicated freighters. Meanwhile, the pandemic has led to the accelerated retirement of aging airplanes, adding to feedstock for freighter conversion
They already have a supplemental type certificate for the conversion and work is under way on the first aircraft, destined for the US cargo carrier Kalitta. The freighter has a new name – Boeing -777-300ERSFv (extended range, special freighter).
Conversion takes around 130 days. A strengthened main deck is installed, along with a cargo door, 9G restraining devise to hold cargo in turbulence and changes to the crew compartment.
The 777-300ERSF is being marketed as a replacement to older 747s. The Boeing 767 remains in production as a freighter with slots booked till late 2022 and the company seeks no end to the line.
Air NZ has always been ambivalent about all-cargo services going back to the 70s with its sole DC-8 freighter. Now the 777 is emerging as a new prospect.
Might some of the millions the government is allocating to the airline be better spent on new freighters and reduce NZ’s strategic vulnerability?