Airbus Studies Potential For A350 And A380 Freighters
With the global air cargo market on the upswing and a dearth of near-term projects to occupy its engineering design team, it is little surprise that Airbus is launching a marketing offensive to promote proposed freighter versions of its A350 and A380 widebodies.
The A350 derivative, dubbed the A350-950F, would be offered as a new-build competitor to Boeing’s successful 777F and upcoming 777-8-based 777XF variant. The A380 proposal, on the other hand, would convert the passenger-only double-decker aircraft into a Combi (combined passenger-freight carrier), with cargo occupying the main deck.
- Manufacturer offers temporary freight solution for passenger cabins
- Global cargo demand is on the rise but capacity is still squeezed
“As a leading aircraft manufacturer we’re always looking at ways to add value for customers,” says an Airbus spokesman. “There are many studies, and not all of them see the light of day.”
The A350 move, in particular, could provide a valuable boost to the Airbus product range, which since the termination of A300/A310 production has failed to match Boeing’s success in the widebody cargo sector. Sales of the A330-200F appear to have dried up, with no orders in the current backlog beyond the 38 already delivered. Demand for the A330 passenger-to-freighter conversion has picked up, however, and a modification program developed by the Airbus and ST Aerospace joint venture Elbe Flugzeugwerke is enjoying success.
The A330 main deck is much smaller than that of the 777F which can accommodate 27 standard 96 X 125 in. cargo pallets. The A330-200F has room for up to 23 pallets. The A350-950F would presumably have room for more.
The proposed -950F derivative is sized between the larger A350-1000 and the smaller A350-900. According to industry sources the new variant will incorporate a new forward fuselage plug with a cargo door and local structural strengthening. The proposed hybrid aircraft, which is believed to be around 230 ft. in overall length compared to 219 ft. for the A350-900 and 242.1 ft. for the A350-1000, would utilize the larger variant’s six-wheel main landing gear design and higher-thrust Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines.
According to suppliers briefed on the project, which was first disclosed by Reuters in March, the A350 derivative could enter service early in the second half of the decade if formally launched by year-end.
Although Airbus first proposed a freighter variant of the A350 in 2007, shortly after the launch of the new airliner program, this early derivative was configured with a performance similar to the MD-11F. Its development was deferred to give priority to the passenger models. Compared to the initial offering, the updated -950F would offer greater range and payload capability, and could enable Airbus to compete more effectively both with Boeing’s popular 777-200LR-based design as well as provide growth to match the 777-8F.
News of the Airbus A350-950F study also comes as the air cargo market emerges with brighter demand prospects in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a global surge in e-commerce. Through an otherwise dismal 2020, the freight market provided Boeing with one of its few bright spots: Of the 26 777s delivered last year, 22 were freighters.
Cargo operators are experiencing a severe capacity shortage, with many long-haul passenger flights still grounded because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says global air cargo demand rose 9% in February compared to the pre-pandemic levels of February 2019. It also rose 1.5% month-over-month from January, and volumes have returned to the 2018 levels seen prior to the U.S.-China trade war, IATA says. However, capacity fell 14.9% compared to February 2019, due to tightening travel restrictions and capacity cuts on the passenger side, IATA says.
Airbus has come up with a short-term answer to that cargo capacity squeeze. In the OEM’s temporary passenger cabin-conversion system the seats are removed and the cabin is adapted to safely and efficiently carry cargo in the cabin: 30 pallets (about 7.8 metric tons) of cargo for the A350 and 28 pallets (7.3 metric tons) for the A330. This solution is already in use by airlines. South Korea’s Asiana Airlines was the first to put it into operation on an A350 last September, transporting information technology and electronic equipment, as well as e-commerce exports such as clothing, from Seoul to Los Angeles.
But operators want longer-term solutions beyond these “preighter” aircraft, and Airbus has also taken note of Boeing’s relative success in other cargo sectors. Boeing delivered 30 of the 767F variants last year, including military tanker versions, compared to 43 in 2019 and 27 in 2018. Deliveries of the 747-8F, which will be phased out of production in 2022, also continued at a slow rate: five were handed over to UPS last year, three of them in the last quarter. Overall, Boeing delivered 46 commercial freighter versions of the 767, 777 and 747-8 in 2020, representing a record 40% of the overall 114 widebody deliveries last year.
Airbus appears to be equally encouraged by Boeing’s freight sector forecast, which in November 2020 predicted air cargo traffic would double over the next two decades, triggering a demand for around 2,430 new-production and converted freighters. Of these, around 1,080 will be single-aisle conversions, with the balance made up of 480 new-build medium widebodies, 420 widebody conversions and 450 new-build large widebody freighters.
In its last pre-pandemic global market forecast issued in 2019, Airbus predicted similar overall numbers, but was more circumspect about the outlook for large freighters (80 metric tons payload and over) through 2038. While Airbus predicted a market for 850 new-build freighters over the next 20 years, it believed only 350 would be in the large category, with the balance—some 500 aircraft—in the medium (40-80 metric tons) sector. Whether these numbers will change for the first post-pandemic forecast remains unclear.
Few details have been released about the proposed A380 Combi, news of which was first reported by the cargo news website freightwaves.com. The modification, which is believed to be an attempt to help current mainline A380 operators tap into the e-commerce market, would retain the existing upper-deck seating for passengers and provide cargo space on the main deck only.
The proposed modification could conceivably inject new life into the flagging A380 program, which is coming to an end after the first flight of the final aircraft from Toulouse on March 17. The Combi initiative partially revives elements of the original A380F design, which was ultimately dropped after orders from Fedex and UPS were canceled in 2006 and 2007, respectively.