New-Generation Large Freighters Form Focus At Dubai Airshow

Airbus A350F
The A350F is sized to compete directly with Boeing’s popular 777F.
Credit: Airbus concept

Freighters rarely steal the limelight from their costly passenger counterparts but, fittingly for a widebody market turned upside down by the pandemic, new cargo developments grabbed the headlines at the industry’s first major air show since COVID-19 became widespread.

With new orders for twin-aisle airliners at a virtual standstill and the air freight industry at historically high levels, the focus for new product development at Airbus and Boeing has shifted in the past two years to the next generation of very large cargo aircraft. The tangible results of this sea change were on display at the Dubai Airshow, where Airbus clinched the first orders for its newly launched A350F freighter and Boeing edged closer to defining the cargo version of the 777X.

  • Air Lease Corp. orders seven A350Fs
  • 777XF shifts toward revised 777-8 baseline

The first A350F orders, for seven aircraft, came as part of an Air Lease Corp. (ALC) letter of intent for 109 Airbus aircraft, which also included 23 A220-300s, 55 A321neos, 20 A321-XLRs and four A330-900s. The A350Fs will be the first freighters in the lessor’s portfolio, but ALC Executive Chairman Steve Udvar-Hazy says demand for the new cargo variant is so strong among its customers that he felt ALC should expand into the field.

Derived from the A350-1000, the A350F fuselage will be shortened by five frames, making it larger than the A350-900 and sized to compete with Boeing’s 777-200LR-derived 777F. Airbus provided new details about the A350F, also disclosing that the aircraft will have a 240,300-lb. maximum payload and a range of 4,700 nm. In an express freight configuration, the manufacturer says it will be capable of flying 209,400 lb. over 6,000 nm.

However, while the A350F has come into sharper focus, details of the Boeing 777XF remain vague, at least to outsiders. Although there was speculation prior to Dubai that Boeing might offer a 777XF sized between the 777-8 and the 777-9, the manufacturer appears to be focusing on a larger 777-8 passenger baseline. The move, prompted by input from carriers for more capacity on the 777-8, also seems to have produced an optimum size for a freighter.

The plan to base the new derivative on a common airframe size with a larger variant of the 777-8 could make sense from a production cost perspective, yet at the same time it could potentially stimulate new interest in the shorter of the two 777X versions. As currently defined, the 777-8 is 229 ft. long,  and the 777-9 is 252 ft. long. However, with added body length and a higher maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) than the previously discussed 777-8 weights of 775,000 lb. and 788,000 lb., the 777XF probably will be offered with an even higher capacity. Industry sources tell Aviation Week a likely MTOW target is around 805,000 lb. compared with 766,800 lb. for the current 777-200LR-based 777F model.

“Until we launch the aircraft, we don’t formally pin down all the specifications,” says Tom Sanderson, Boeing’s director of product marketing, 787 product development and the Confident Travel Initiative. “The challenge with freighters is that you are always balancing payload against volume. Higher density tends to be of higher value, and in long-haul cargo, weight is favored—in which case, body length is less sensitive because you typically will hit the weight limit first.”

Sanderson adds that the growth of the e-commerce market drives other considerations for which low-density freight is key. “In that case, cargo volume is much more important, and it tends to drive you higher. We are absolutely in those discussions, and somewhere between the two I think [is] a reasonable assumption,” he says.

However, as the only carrier other than Qatar to order the 777-8 passenger version, Emirates has expressed concerns about Boeing’s potential move to standardize its 777XF and 777-8 with a common airframe length that is larger than originally proposed. “That is going to cause issues. Why would you buy something that is so close [in size] to the -9?” says Emirates Airline President Tim Clark.

The airline, which led the launch order avalanche for the 777X in 2013 by selecting 115 777-9s and 35 777-8s, has been told by Boeing to expect certification of the 777-9 by July 2023. But Emirates is voicing further doubts about the continuation of its 777-8 order, which has been revised downward to 16 and partially replaced by a commitment for 30 787-9s.

If Emirates moves away from the 777-8 entirely, the future of that version would be thrown into question. Without its commitment, Boeing would be left with only 10 firm orders for the type (from Qatar Airways)—and any potential Emirates move could trigger a response by its Gulf rival, too.

Meanwhile, Emirates is revisiting its fleet plan. “A three-year delay [of the 777X] impacts everything we do,” Clark says. “We mapped out almost to the day the entry into service of each aircraft.” Emirates is also taking into account the possibility that the 777-9 could be delayed longer and that it may not get the 787-9s as planned, given the one-year halt in deliveries. Clark says he asked Boeing to come up with a solid schedule as soon as possible. On the other hand, he says, “We cannot sit around and not do anything.”

Meanwhile, Boeing says that although flight control changes required by regulators for the 777-9 have yet to be installed and tested, it is confident the extended 777-9 certification campaign will likely be completed just under two years from now-—putting it on track for certification and first deliveries in the last quarter of 2023.

Projecting a more conservative completion estimate than that revealed by Emirates, Boeing says it will take approximately 44 months from first flight of the 777-9 in January 2020 to earn type certification around October 2023. This compares to 10 months and 20 months to achieve the same milestones on the original 777 and 787, respectively.

However, the actual certification timing will depend on regulators. “It speaks to the amount of time that we’ve had on this airplane to fly it and to be able to work out any of the issues that we have had and get [adjustments] incorporated,” says Mike Fleming, a senior vice president who is leading the 737 MAX’s return to service and is head of commercial customer support and commercial derivative programs. “We were very deliberate back in the beginning of this year when we moved the schedule on the 777X to encompass the changes that we’ve seen in the regulatory environment and changes that we wanted to make onto the airplane as well.”

The four test aircraft—the first of which was on display in Dubai—have amassed more than 1,700 flight hours out of what is expected to be a roughly 3,500-hr. total test campaign. That is in the same ballpark as the 777 and 787 programs, says Fleming. “When we look at where we are right now, we still believe that we’ll be positioned to certify the airplane and to deliver it to our customers in late 2023,” he says.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.