The retired American Airlines 767s are being turned into cargo planes

Mar 31, 2020

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The Boeing 767s that American Airlines is retiring early because of the coronavirus pandemic won’t be grounded for long. They’re getting a new lease on life as all-cargo jets.

The first is on its way to Israel today to be converted from passenger to freighter. Flight-tracking site Flightradar24 showed on Tuesday that the 767 bearing the registration N394AN was in flight to Tel Aviv from a storage facility in Roswell, New Mexico, via a stop in Wilmington, Ohio.

These 767s aren’t just being employed occasionally to fly cargo in their baggage holds, like the airline’s bigger 777s are. They are being transformed completely into full freighters, in a process that takes months of work and includes cutting a new, oversized door on the left side of the fuselage forward of the wing to load cargo on the main deck. Tel Aviv-based Israel Aircraft Industries has specialized for decades in converting passenger 767s to cargo.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

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Trade publication Cargo Facts wrote in late 2018 that an aircraft-leasing company had acquired American’s entire fleet of 767-300ER to have them converted to freighters and then lease them out to cargo carriers, as they were retired progressively over the following three years. But then the COVID-19  pandemic happened, accelerating the timeline for their retirement from 2021 to next month.

Fleet-tracking site Planespotters shows that two of American’s 767s are still actively, if sporadically, flying for the airline, while 12 are stored in Roswell. After spending time in the dry air of the Southwestern U.S. desert, which helps prevent corrosion, they will be flown to IAI’s facilities and turned into cargos.

Related: Watch how airplanes are put into storage because of the coronavirus

It’s not an uncommon fate for passenger wide-bodies, which have the room and range to fly heavy freight over oceans, and these ex-AA 767s still have a long, productive life as cargo haulers ahead of them. The 767 may be past its prime as a passenger jet, but it’s doing just fine as a cargo plane, with hundreds in use worldwide as pure freighters. It’s a sturdy, time-tested design that’s been around since the early 1980s, it’s relatively cheap to operate, and enjoys widespread maintenance support worldwide since Boeing is actually still producing it — albeit in small numbers, in its cargo or air-tanker version only.

Many of Boeing’s bigger 747s undergo conversion to full freighters too, and go on flying for decades more after leaving passenger service. It’s not a glamorous role, with cargo operations mostly confined to remote corners of airports away from the terminals. But those peculiar birds play a vital role in the world economy, for example helping carry the latest-model electronic gadgets from factory to market much faster than container ships can.

The cargo-only 767 has found a niche as package carrier, which has made it into the workhorse of Amazon Prime Air, the “Amazon airline” that carries goods for the world’s biggest e-commerce company. Now known as Amazon Air only to differentiate from Amazon’s future drone-delivery service — although it still sports the Prime logo on its planes — it flies a large fleet of 35 converted 767s that all used to be passenger planes, some with American.

The one below, photographed in Seattle in 2018, criss-crossed the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean with AA from 1992 to 2016 before having its windows removed and being turned into a package hauler.

Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy
Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

 

The fall in demand from the pandemic may push other airlines to retire 767s early, too. Delta and United have grounded many of theirs, and it’s still unknown if they will all return to the skies. So, while you may not be able fly on 767s as a passenger for much longer, you will still see them at airports for a long time, now hauling cargo. And there’s a good chance that when a package from Amazon shows up at your door, it will have gotten there courtesy of a trusty 767 — maybe one you’ve flown on before, as a passenger on American Airlines.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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