From passenger jets to freighters: how the e-commerce growth transforms aviation

2021/07/09 at 1:40 PM

The ongoing pandemic has definitely transformed aviation since many passenger aircraft were landed for an unknown period. From another hand, it significantly boosted air freight shipments due to the increasing popularity of e-commerce. This results in a lack of freighters and capacity to deliver parcels in time.

Due to IATA, the global air cargo demand in May 2021 was reported as 9,4 per cent higher than in May 2019. The statistics of the Europe-based airlines show their volumes 6 per cent higher than in May 2019, while capacity is almost 17 per cent lower. The airlines have been experiencing a shortage in bellyhold capacity since passenger services were disrupted due to travel restrictions. But even in 2021, as passenger aviation began to recover from the pandemic, it can no longer cope with the growth of e-commerce.

Converted passenger aircraft with boxes onboard, source: Lufthansa Technik

The importance of aviation increased against the backdrop of a shortage of container ships capacity and problems with handling cargo in ports. This is a potential direction of development also for shipping lines. CMA CGM is already using this new possibility with its newly created air cargo division.

IATA experts say that many airlines continue operating “passenger freighters” (without interior transformation into the cargo compartment), but these operations are costly and complex to operate. That’s why air lease companies and airlines have been increasingly referring to converting an unused passenger fleet into a cargo fleet.


Some of the “retired” passenger aircraft will be returned to life for Amazon. The e-commerce giant bought 11 Boeing 767-300ER passenger aircraft in January 2021 for cargo conversion. They will be added to the Air Prime’s fleet to help Jeff Bezos’s company in the global delivery war.

Amazon Prime Air freighter, source: Amazon

767s for Amazon are being prepared by Israel Aerospace Industries. IAI has been converting passenger jets to freighters for four decades and is well known in this industry. Since the start of the pandemic, its business is expanding and now IAI is going to establish the first passenger to freighter conversion site in Europe. It will be situated in Naples and specialise in the Boeing 737-700/800 aircraft. The cargo conversion site in Italy will join two existing cargo conversion sites in China.

European aviation groups

The big European aviation groups also see the potential of using converted passenger aircraft. Just a few days ago, Lufthansa Cargo announced that two of its Airbus A321 aircraft to be converted into freighters. They will be operated by Lufthansa CityLine from the beginning of 2022. The German company calculated that cross-border e-commerce shipments will grow by around 20 per cent per year for the next five years.

Lufthansa Cargo aircraft filled with Sustainable Aviation Fuel, source: Lufthansa Cargo/Oliver Rösler

The Air France – KLM group seems to have similar intentions. Its CEO Ben Smith recently told that the French carrier’s cargo operations have blossomed amid the global health crisis. In this regard, Air France will have to decide whether to replenish its fleet with new cargo aircraft or convert old ones (for example, Boeing 777-300).

However, even the key players of the market cannot predict how long the rising demand for air cargo will last. “I think that capacity will be tighter than demand for a long time. But we all know that airfreight trends are never steadily positive. I don’t know exactly when there will be a downturn in the next five years, but there will be one for sure,” says Dorothea von Boxberg, CEO of Lufthansa Cargo.

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