Friday, February 23, 2024
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Pandemic legacy

LOD, ISRAEL (AP) – The passenger doors on the jumbo jet were just too small. So engineers at Israel’s main airport sliced a new hole the size of an SUV into the side of the fuselage – and hoisted a massive hatch into place.

In many ways, it’s the doorway to the post-pandemic future of the battered airline industry.
As global tourism struggles to its feet after two harrowing years of coronavirus restrictions, Israel’s state-owned aerospace company is cashing in on the growth of e-commerce by converting grounded passenger planes into cargo jets for global giants like Amazon and DHL. The work reflects what analysts think is a permanent, pandemic-driven boom for shipping the stuff people buy.

To adapt, Israel Aerospace Industries (iai) early in the pandemic sped up and expanded what amounts to its assembly line. The sales pitch: At about USD35 million an aircraft, the metamorphosis is a bargain compared to buying a new cargo plane four or five times that price.

Now, the company said, it transforms about 25 planes a year, up from about 18 annually before the onslaught of COVID-19. The company has emerged as a top player in this market, competing with others like Boeing. Its numbers continue to grow, and IAI officials say orders are booked for the next four years.

“This is about the relationship between passengers and cargo and pandemic,” said executive vice president and general manager of the company’s aviation division Shmuel Kuzi. He said IAI now converts Boeing 737s and the much larger 767s.

Photos show engineers working on the conversion of a Boeing 767 passenger plane to a cargo plane at the Israel Aerospace Industries in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel. PHOTOS: AP

Engineers carrying out passenger seats
A Boeing 767 undergoing conversion from a passenger plane to a cargo plane

Next year, the company expects to convert even bigger 777s – the first in the world, he said, with the work at a new plant in Abu Dhabi. That’s partly a result of the United States (US)-brokered “Abraham Accords”, which formally established relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. And it’s a sign, Kuzi said, of the demand for converted jumbo jets.

Analysts say the explosive growth in online buying is likely to settle a bit as the pandemic wanes, inflation rises and people spend less time at their laptops. But the cost of shipping goods, exacerbated by tangles in the supply chain, is expected to challenge even the largest businesses. Amazon, for example, pointed in part to rising shipping costs when it boosted its Prime membership on February 18 from USD119 to USD139.

E-commerce jumped by double-digit percentages at the start of the pandemic, accelerating a trend driven by shutdowns that kept people inside. Instead of travelling, people ordered online and expected speedy doorstep service.

That’s a big part of the reason that demand for cargo planes has held up throughout the the pandemic.

Before the crisis, 50 per cent of all global air cargo travelled in passenger planes. But when the pandemic began, some 80 per cent of passenger planes stopped flying. The price of freight shipped by sea soared.

Air freighters needed a workaround – and grounded passenger planes provided one.

Eytan Buchman, Chief Marketing Officer of Freightos, a Jerusalem-based booking platform, said one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to increase capacity was converting passenger planes into freighters. Meanwhile, people and businesses are expected to keep up their online buying.

“People are still stuck in the mindset of, ‘I want to buy more goods’,” Buchman said. But he expects a “rebalancing” as the pandemic subsides. For now, even as air travel begins to rebound, the number of passengers flying remains far below pre-pandemic levels.

“We don’t anticipate passenger network recovery to be for several years,” said director general of the International Air Transport Association Glyn Hughes. Air cargo demand, he said, is expected to grow by as much as five per cent per year.

The International Trade Administration, part of the US Commerce Department, forecasts that worldwide e-commerce sales will continue to grow steadily by about eight per cent per year through 2024.

Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Michigan-based Aerodynamic Advisory, a consulting firm, said that while demand for refitted planes is robust, there is a danger that IAI and others are betting too heavily on the market. “There’s that risk of, will demand stay high?” he said.

Through 2025, Kuzi said, IAI is booked with conversions, a sprawling engineering and technical process that takes about three months. The company earlier this month announced it had completed its 100th conversion of a 767-300. IAI, Kuzi said, leads the world’s conversions of that model.

The transformation involves much more than removing seats and installing new doors.

On a recent day at the company’s campus a few miles from Ben Gurion International Airport, three hulking 767s stood in different stages of transformation. The air whirred with drills, the rush of ventilation and the clang of equipment being installed or removed.

Outside the hangar, workers carted blue leather passenger seats away from one jetliner, formerly owned by Delta, that had just arrived and parked on the tarmac. A pile of yellow oxygen masks, tubing and ceiling panels grew on a jetway as workers emptied the fuselage, which bore an American flag. At the front of the dark, cool interior, the first class section and the cockpit stood – for the moment – nearly intact, a testament to how that space had been used in what’s become known as the “before times”.

Two more 767s inside a nearby hangar offered glimpses of the next steps in the conversion process.

Both behemoths stood on specially made stands, surrounded by scaffolding several stories high.

The opening for the new cargo door gaped. Inside, engineers and technicians installed a new floor and panels along the walls. Another crew rewired the cockpit.

The only sign it had ever served another purpose was a red maple leaf spanning the tail and faded letters spelling “Canada” emblazoned in red across the fuselage.

When it’s done, the plane and all others like it will be able to carry about 60 tonnes of goods on two floors.