New FedEx feeder freighter passes first test flight (with video)

Hellen Wadman

ATR moved a step closer this month to fulfilling an order from FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) for its new turboprop freighter, which will operate on regional routes to smaller towns and cities. The aircraft manufacturer, a joint venture between Airbus and Leonardo based in Toulouse, France, said the ATR 72-600 […]

ATR moved a step closer this month to fulfilling an order from FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) for its new turboprop freighter, which will operate on regional routes to smaller towns and cities.

The aircraft manufacturer, a joint venture between Airbus and Leonardo based in Toulouse, France, said the ATR 72-600 production freighter successfully completed its first test flight on the island of Saint-Martin. During the two-hour flight, the crew performed tests to measure the aircraft’s operational limits with regard to speed and load factors, and other performance characteristics.

FedEx is the ATR freighter’s launch customer, with a firm order for 30 aircraft and an option for 20 more. The first delivery is scheduled for the fourth quarter, ATR spokesman Ben Peggie said.

ATR 72-600 freighter takes its first test flight on Sept. 16. (Source: ATR)

The ATR-600 series includes a large cargo door and reinforced floor panels, the advanced cockpit technology with simplified, integrated display functions, improved handling for pilots, and significant weight reduction, according to the company. The aircraft also consumes significantly less fuel than a comparable small jet. 

It will support bulk cargo and special air containers, known as unit load devices (ULD). Bulk capacity is 2,630 cubic feet, and in ULD mode the aircraft can accommodate up to seven LD3 containers, five 88-by-108-inch pallets or nine 88-by-62-inch pallets.

Current FedEx feeder aircraft do not carry containers or palletized freight. The company says the features will help it better serve customers used to organizing shipments for pallets.

When FedEx placed its order for the ATR freighters in November 2017 it said it expected ATR to deliver about six aircraft per year over a five-year period. 

At the same time, the parcel delivery company also ordered 50 smaller Cessna SkyCourier 408 aircraft from Textron Aviation (NYSE: TXT) of Wichita, Kansas, with first delivery estimated for mid-2020. The planes offer a flat floor cabin equipped to handle up to three LD3 containers and a 6,000-pound payload. The twin-engine, high-wing turboprop has almost twice the volumetric capacity of the single-engine Cessna Caravan 208 currently in the FedEx Express feeder fleet.

The purchase of more advanced feeder aircraft like the ATR 72-600 freighter is part of the express delivery company’s fleet modernization strategy that has helped improve fuel efficiency and fleet reliability in recent years. FedEx worked closely with ATR to develop the aircraft.

The small freight aircraft serve markets too small for direct FedEx Express linehaul service and where FedEx doesn’t have operating rights. The express carrier currently deploys more than 300 feeder aircraft in 45 countries. Most of these feeder aircraft are owned by FedEx, and are leased and operated by different third-party air carriers under their own operating certificates. 

Market for ATR

ATR has sold nearly 1,700 aircraft and has over 200 operators in more than 100 countries, according to its website.

Large, low-cost airlines that fly the ATR 72-600 passenger variant include Indigo, Wings and Lion Air.

The planes have been used during the coronavirus crisis to move critical medical supplies, including in the cabin with seat bags to hold the cargo in place, Mark Dunnachie, ATR’s head of Europe, Middle East and Asia region, said on a July 30 podcast with travel data provider OAG.

In its 2018 forecast, ATR said turboprop planes would enjoy increasing popularity as a method for last-mile delivery as consumers in developed and emerging markets continue to gravitate toward online shopping. The forecast showed that 78% of the 2017 turboprop freighter fleet operated in Europe and North America. It estimated that by 2037 there will be 430 turboprop freighters in operation worldwide, up from 333, and that the vast majority would be in the larger, 8-ton category.

About 70% of the global ATR fleet has been restored to pre-COVID levels, underscoring the fact that short-haul travel is coming back faster than longer-distance flights because people want to travel closer to home these days for health reasons, Dunnachie said.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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