Conversions answer call as market rebounds

Like nearly all industries worldwide, the global economic crisis took its toll on the aircraft conversion market from well into 2008 and through 2009. With existing freighters parked, new conversion orders – especially for large widebody freighters, slowed down significantly, but things are now looking up again for US-based conversion outfits. By Karen E. Thuermer.

“The lack of conversions during this period was quite devastating, but also laid the ground work for an incredible recovery that started in the summerof 2009,” comments Robert T. Convey, vice president of Sales & Marketingfor Westlake Village, CaliforniabasedAeronautical Engineers, Inc. (AEI).The reason for his optimism is dueto the fact the conversion backlog haslargely burned off and the cargo industry is experiencing double digit gains in fronthaul traffic. Yet barriers to entry remaintall for operators attempting to move intonewer, more efficient aircraft.

“The operators have certainly been weakened by the recent turn of events,” says Brian McCarthy, vice president of Marketing and Sales for Beaverton, Oregon-based Precision Conversions. “The costs associated with changing fleet types (pilot/mechanic training, spares provisioning, tooling and ground support equipment) go well beyond the lease rate of a converted jet.”

But, feedstock for conversions is a concern as passenger operators hold on to assets artificially longer than history would have predicted. Some conversion companies have fared far better than others, however.

“The picture for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) is perhaps worse,” observes Kevin Casey, president of Pemco World Air Services in Tampa, Florida.

Boeing’s 747-400 lines in Asia, for example, are reportedly down from three to a broken single line. And Airbus’ Dresden production has been all but mothballed for much of the past couple of years.