What it takes to turn an old passenger plane into a cargo hauler

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The price to ship goods by air jumped to a record just before Christmas 2021, driven by strong e-commerce demand, port congestion and a chokehold on capacity from airlines’ limited pandemic schedules.

Those trends also drove a boom in a small but lucrative corner of the aerospace industry: converting passenger planes into aircraft that can haul cargo. A record 164 planes were converted to freighters last year, according to aviation data firm Cirium.

Air cargo rates have since declined, in part from a flood of new capacity on the market from the resurgence in air travel. Air freight flies in the bellies of passenger planes and dedicated freighters, most of which are converted planes. The Baltic Air Freight Index was down more than 48% from last year.

A Boeing 777 that is being converted into a cargo plane in Fort Worth, Texas, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

But companies such as Boeing have been ramping up capacity to convert planes as orders continue to come in.

An old first-class suite on a former Nordwind Boeing 777 slated to be converted to a freighter, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs/CNBC

Across the globe, in facilities from Texas to Singapore, technicians rip out old seats, galleys, lavatories and other parts of the plane, leaving behind crumbs, children’s toys and other signs of aircrafts’ past lives carrying passengers.

A technician removes seats from a Boeing 777 in Fort Worth, Texas, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs/CNBC

Technicians then reinforce the floor to carry heavy cargo loads, and a special doorway is cut and door installed so goods can be loaded onto the plane.

Aircraft technicians work on a Boeing 777 that is being converted into a cargo plane in Fort Worth, Texas, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

The process can take months and cost millions of dollars, in some cases more than $30 million per plane, including maintenance. Companies that specialize in this business say they’re still racking up orders to turn planes into freighters, despite the lower shipping rates.

An aircraft technician works on a Boeing 777 that is being converted into a cargo plane in Fort Worth, Texas, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

CNBC visited Aspire MRO and Mammoth Freighters in Fort Worth, Texas — where the companies are converting Boeing 777 wide-body aircraft into giant cargo haulers — to see how the process works.

Watch the video to learn more.

A former Delta Air Lines Boeing 777 gets converted into a passenger freighter in Fort Worth, Texas, March 7, 2023.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

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