In the early 2000s Boeing 747-400 production was beginning to wind down as the 777-300 took its place and residual values for 747s began to fall. At the same time a significant fleet of 747-100/200 freighters was in service and approaching the end of their lives.
In late 2003 Israel Aircraft Industries Bedek Aviation Group announced the first conversion programme for the 747-400 producing what it termed 747-400BDSFs. This programme included:
-- Installation of side cargo door at the aft of the main deck
-- Reinforcement of Cargo Floor
-- 30 plus main deck container or pallet positions
-- Fully powered cargo handling system
-- 20-foot container capabilities
-- Increased cargo height (10 feet) capability
-- Upper deck occupancy reconfiguration
-- Systems and interior modification into freighter configuration
-- Fully lined main deck cargo compartment
Boeing themselves joined the party in 2004 announcing the 747-400BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter) programme. This included a whole host of changes including the installation of the 747-400F main deck cargo floor. Neither of the conversion programmes included the addition of a swing nose as in the true 747-400F. Boeing did not plan on undertaking the conversions itself but instead would oversee sub-contractors who undertook the work. The first of these was HAECO's Xiamen site - Taikoo Aircraft Engineering (TAECO), which Being had a stake in.
The first 747-400BCF was redelivered to Cathay Pacific on December 20, 2005 and by August 2006 orders had been received for 43 conversion kits with 23 options. The second aircraft, for Japan Airlines, wasn't delivered until May 2006 but by then TAECO had three conversion lines in operation able to convert 8 747s a year. The prototype conversion took 6 months and the second 5 months but from that point ongoing conversion times were reduced to 128 days.
Cathay received the 3rd BCF in June with Korean Air getting the 4th in August. Korean ordered 7 BCFs from TAECO but also organised conversion of a further 6 by its Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAAD). Singapore Airlines Engineering also joined the sites undertaking BCF conversions in 2006 and undertook 7 conversions of ex-SIA 747-412s for SIA (3) and Dragonair Cargo (4).
The orders continued to flow as mainly Asian airlines retired their passenger fleets and converted them to freighters. Air China ordered 3 conversions in November 2008.
“We look forward to our Boeing 747-400BCFs being of the same high quality as the factory-built freighters we operate,” said Air China Cargo President Yao Jun. “Since Boeing is responsible for the modification, we know that these airplanes will receive the superior customer support that we have come to expect from Boeing.”
Air China's aircraft were to supplement its existing 3 747-400Fs and 2 747-400BDSFs and replace its 3 747-200Fs. Air China had been an early customer for the Israeli conversion programme and had accepted 2 747-433BDSFs (originally Air Canada frames) in August and October 2006. They would be returned to their lessors in 2012 and 2014 respectively. The three aircraft for the Air China BCF programme were its own 747-4J6s B-2456/58 and 60. They were delivered from June 2009 until mid-2010.
Unfortunately the programme, which had begun positively was adversely impacted by the 2008 global financial crisis and rise in jet fuel prices. Cathay Pacific, which had converted 13 units to BCF standard retired its aircraft and moved them to subsidiaries Air Hong Kong, Dragonair Cargo and Air China Cargo (the latter was not a subsidiary but co-owned). Air China received 3 747-412BCFs (B-2453/55/57) but by 2013 was not saying anything positive about them. Their COO at the time said:
“Coupled with the existing low-yield market, the BCF is a disaster, especially on eastbound routes out of Asia. In today’s high fuel price environment, a BCF would make a business case only on short-haul regional routes such as Shanghai-Tokyo or Shanghai-Taipei.”
The bottom fell out of the BCF market, although the type could still be used profitably on short haul high load factor routes. Unfortunately for the type the decrease in fuel prices that has come over the past few years has also gone hand in hand with a glut of belly capacity on passenger aircraft and new orders for 747-8Fs and 777Fs. With airfreight not expanding at the hoped for rates 747-400BCFs and 747-400Fs have been being retired. Boeing didn't announce the cancellation of the BCf programme until late 2016 but conversions had effectively ceased much earlier.
By June 2014 only 23 747-400BCFs remained in service with 26 stored and 1 written off. The 747-400BDSF was in a similar place with 24 in service and 5 in storage. At that time several operators had already agreed to replace the type - Eva Air for example had ordered 777Fs to replace its entire freighter fleet, which included 6 747-400BDSFs.
Air China was also one of these airlines having ordered new 777Fs from Boeing and organised to return 7 of its 747 freighters to them in part exchange. These included all the BCFs which were out of the fleet by the time the last new 777F arrived in 2015. By 2016 only 20 BCFs and 27 BDSFs remained in operation mainly with second line cargo operators like Kalitta Air.
The 747-400BCF and BDSF programmes succeeded in giving a second life to the 747-400 and enabled retirement of older series freighters. Unfortunately they were overtaken by wholesale changes in the cargo market which increasingly are rendering 747 freighters (even new 747-8Fs) surplus to requirements.
2003, September. IAI's Bedek Aviation Group Announces Boeing 747-400 SF Passenger to Cargo Conversion Program. Defense-aerospace.com
2006, February. First in Freight. Flight Global
2006. May. China's TAECO 're-delivers' first cargo conversion Boeing 747-400BCF to JAL Cargo. Flight Global
2008, November. Air China Orders 747-400BCFs. Revistaaera
2012, December. Interesting times ahead in the widebody conversion business. Cargo Facts
2014, June. Retirement of 747-400 and MD-11 freighters accelerates. Cargo Facts
2016, December. Boeing has announced the end of its programme to turn Boeing 747-400 into cargo planes. Retail News Asia
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: