Front Page
Boeing Frontiers
March 2004
Volume 02, Issue 10
Boeing Frontiers
Commercial Airplanes

747's royal treatment

'Queen of the Skies' is the centerpiece of a new cargo airplane conversion program


Above: Boeing this year launched the 747-400 Special Freighter program. This artist's concept shows a 747-400 Special Freighter (top) and a 747-400 Freighter, in the livery of launch customer Cathay Pacific Airways.
Converting a passenger airplane to a freighter is a bit like turning a single-family house into a small office complex. The shell of the house may remain the same, but the breakfast nook is turned into a server-copier-fax area and the dining room becomes a conference space.

The outside of a converted freighter appears unchanged with the exception of a new, large, side cargo door, but the inside goes through a complex transformation to prepare the airplane for its new mission. Such is the case of the 747-400 Special Freighter, the latest conversion offering by Boeing Commercial Airplanes Commercial Aviation Services unit.

The 747-400 Special Freighter provides cargo carriers one more option from Boeing to meet their needs—and gives Boeing another product to support its market-leading position in the cargo airplane market (see Page 12 of the October 2003 Boeing Frontiers). In the eyes of Marco Cavazzoni, 747-400 Special Freighter Program director, the conversion program is an enabler of sorts.

"Each 747-400 conversion enables an airline to transition to point-to-point economics and turns existing passenger airplanes into freighters to provide much needed cargo capacity," Cavazzoni said. As each 747-400 is taken out of passenger service and converted to a freighter, the 777 and (in the future) the 7E7 are just the right fit to fill the point-to-point passenger long-haul need.

Planning for the 747-400 transformation began more than a year ago, and a changing market helped determine timing of the launch.

A large passenger airplane becomes a freighter conversion candidate after about 15 years of service, and Commercial Aviation Services marketers knew the timing for the 747-400 conversion was approaching. But actual timing is up to the customer.

"The market told us it was time to launch the 747-400 passenger-to-freighter conversion, because airplanes became available [because of] a downturn in passenger traffic," said George Peppes, freighter conversion product marketing manager. Indeed, 747s were among the first airplanes that airlines chose to park after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. With fewer people flying, airlines turned to new 777s to meet demand more efficiently; this model continues to be the right asset for airlines to manage their way back to health.

The air cargo market was less affected by Sept. 11, and in fact has steadily risen over the past few years. That's good news for Boeing, because freighter conversions comprise about two-thirds of the world's current cargo fleet.

Airlines confirmed the 747-400 Special Freighter fills their need to carry more cargo over longer distances. In January, Cathay Pacific Airways announced plans to convert between six and 12 passenger airplanes to freighters, in addition to ordering a new 747-400F, or production freighter. More airlines are expected to follow as customers move from proposal acceptance to definitive agreement and finally to order announcement.

With first orders for the 747-400 Special Special Freighter in hand, the spotlight falls on Cavazzoni and his team to execute the conversion. The team manages and integrates all facets of the program using a concept they call "line of sight," to keep everyone aware of what is happening.

"It doesn't mean everyone does everything, but each person understands where he or she fits on the map," Cavazzoni said. "Everyone" includes suppliers and partners, plus people who have expertise in a wide range of areas and who are located around the world.

"The large-scale systems integration approach allows us to improve the capabilities and marketability of each team member," said Cavazzoni, "and that's the best kind of job security we can offer." His hope is that every employee will look back on this experience and be able to identify something—a key learning, perhaps—that will help them achieve his or her next career step.

A single plan and an information repository are important tools for moving the 747-400 Special Freighter program forward at a pace and scale that are not for the faint of heart. Consider this: The group spent 2003 understanding the strategic implications of the program for the company and working with customers to define initial configuration and matching market requirements. Staffers estimated resources and identified the partnerships that needed to be formed. By October, the conversion was officially offered to customers.

A mere 11 months from the first customer announcement in January, the "conversion kit" for the prototype airplane will arrive at TAECO, the Chinese modification company that will perform the first physical conversions. The many tasks needed to meet the December deadline include designing and engineering parts, signing procurement agreements and setting up—not to mention passing—critical design reviews, said Ralph Kramer, leader, 747-400 Special Freighter Program Management. In addition, there is certification planning involving the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and ongoing meetings with Cathay Pacific and TAECO.

"People don't appreciate the magnitude of change that will take place during the freighter conversion," Kramer said. "The wing is about the only major area not impacted."

All of the passenger elements are removed from the airplane when it first arrives at the modification house. Floor beams are replaced by reinforced beams that can hold tons of cargo. Ducting, air systems and anything that goes through the floor is affected. Some of the original electrical system remains, but what feeds off the system is different: It's like moving the light switches to different parts of a room in your house and installing 220-volt current for an industrial refrigerator. The side cargo door is installed after that section of the fuselage is reinforced.

Boeing program staff will also work with the airline to ensure that aircraft heavy maintenance and safety checks are integrated with the conversion work.

Every 747-400 Special Freighter conversion kit is matched to a specific airplane tail number. With a Boeing conversion, airlines benefit from a team of experts whose members originally designed, engineered and procured parts for the 747-400; who have designed and engineered other modifications; and who will support the airplane with updated manuals at redelivery and long after with service bulletins and other products. In this way, Boeing, as the original equipment manufacturer, lowers the risk of converting airplanes.

In addition, Boeing's growing expertise in large-scale integration and partnering relationships around the world provides the flexibility for capacity to grow or shrink as required. For example, during early stages of the program, engineers in Long Beach, Calif., and the Puget Sound region of Washington state will work hand-in-hand with colleagues at the Boeing Design Center in Moscow. This round-the-clock staffing frees other engineers to support the new 7E7 aircraft and new freighter-conversion programs planned to be introduced in the next year or so.

Likewise, as new customers are announced and the backlog grows, the program can increase capacity by adding more partners to install the conversion kits onto airplanes. "It would be difficult to satisfy market requirements by putting everything in one location," Kramer said.

Keys to managing this and other complexities of this program include taking advantage of the expertise available to Boeing worldwide, managing using one plan and one repository for information, and using the "line of sight" philosophy.

"With these things in place, we believe we're on the right track and can manage the tremendous amount of work still ahead," Cavazzoni said. "The proof will be in 2006, when airplanes are being converted nose-to-tail in several locations worldwide."


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