Airbus Moves Forward With A350 Freighter As Boeing Considers Response
<i>Jens Flottau, Guy Norris</i>
Airbus has been largely absent from the new-built freighter market, leaving Boeing with a virtual monopoly for the 767F, 777F and 747-8F.
Airbus Moves Forward With A350 Freighter As Boeing Considers Response
With prospects for the launch of an all-new Western-made widebody essentially nonexistent well into the 2020s, the emerging focus for the next big-jet battleground is pivoting toward freighters—the one market sector to see any lasting benefit from the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Airbus on July 28 received approval from its board of directors to build a freighter version of the A350. The aircraft is to enter service in 2025, although no launch order has been signed yet.
- Airbus aims to break Boeing’s monopoly in the large cargo aircraft market
- Boeing expects to launch 777X cargo version “soon”
- Replacement cycle anticipated for second half of decade
Airbus has been largely absent from the new-build freighter market, leaving its competitor effectively with a monopoly for the Boeing 767F, 777F and 747-8F. The European airframer has so far only been offering a cargo version of the A330-200, but after 38 deliveries there are no more firm orders for the aircraft. Boeing will cease production of the 747-8F in 2022 after 10 more aircraft on backlog are delivered to UPS (six) and Atlas Air (four).
Given the proliferation of e-commerce demand for cargo capacity and dedicated freighters, the sector is likely to continue to shine as one of the few bright spots in air transport. "Air cargo is doing brisk business as the global economy continues its recovery from the COVID-19 crisis,” International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh says.
In the first half of 2021, demand in terms of cargo ton kilometers was 8% above the first half of 2019 (see chart below). And if anything, the trend is improving—in June demand rose by almost 10%. But a key factor for the dedicated freighter market is that overall capacity is still down significantly (-10.8% globally in June), because many passenger aircraft that used to carry cargo remain grounded or are operating at very low utilization. According to the Aviation Week Fleet Discovery database, just over 60 aircraft were converted to freighters in the first half of 2021—about twice as many as in the first six months of 2019 and 2020 combined.
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury says he expects the A350F will benefit from a “wave of replacements” in the second half of the decade. As the Boeing 777F fleet is still very young, Airbus must be betting on upgauging decisions by 767F operators and the replacement market of the 747F, MD-11F and older converted former passenger aircraft. With 119 MD-11F/DC-10Fs remaining in commercial service, according to Aviation Week’s database, that fleet presents a major opportunity. “[The A350] is the only new-generation freighter,” Faury says.
Airbus has yet to share many technical details but says it plans to provide them at a later stage. Faury confirms that the aircraft will have a payload capability of “90+ tons.” That compares to 102 tons for the 777F and 52.5 tons for the 767-300F.
The A350F is to be based on the “building blocks” of the A350-900 and mainly the -1000, according to Faury. He says it is also “benefiting from the Beluga XL” work, the A330-200-based outsize cargo variant that Airbus uses internally to carry wings and fuselage sections between its manufacturing and final assembly sites.
Airbus briefed suppliers earlier this year about an A350-950F, falling in size between the -900 and -1000 and incorporating a new forward fuselage plug with a cargo door and local structural strengthening. The aircraft is believed to be about 230 ft. in overall length, compared to 219 ft. for the A350-900 and 242.1 ft. for the A350-1000. According to the studies, the aircraft would be equipped with the larger variant’s six-wheel main landing gear design and higher-thrust Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines.
The new freighter will be “embedded” in the final assembly and production process of the passenger A350 program, Faury says, adding that “the production rates depend on the commercial success.”
As Airbus mounts its first major challenge to Boeing’s dominance at the top end of the cargo market, the U.S. manufacturer is accelerating efforts to launch the freighter derivative of the 777X family—even as the first 777-9 passenger variant of that family is not due to enter service until late 2023. The initiative is gathering pace amid the continuing recovery of the world air cargo market, the imminent end of 747-8F production in 2022 and the emergence of the A350-950F.
Additional pressure to refresh the product line comes from future International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) emissions standards adopted in 2017, which neither the existing 767-300ERF nor the 777-200LR-based 777F will meet by the legislation’s effective date of 2028. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Boeing has applied for a deadline extension until 2038 applicable to the 767F because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the authority pointed to an existing FAA mechanism that could be used to apply for an extension until 2038.
The 777F has meanwhile become a stalwart of the company’s recent widebody business, with 209 delivered and 46 unfilled orders. “We continue to see strong freighter demand, as evidenced by orders for 13 777Fs in the quarter, providing a solid bridge to the 777X,” says Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun.
Having made no secret of his determination to see the company jump swiftly on the big freighter, Calhoun describes the 777X freighter version as “very powerful and very good.” “I am committed to find a way to get that program launched and moving, and our customers are, too,” he told Aviation Week in June.
At the company’s second-quarter earnings call on July 28, Calhoun remained on message, commenting that he hopes the derivative will be given board approval for launch “very soon.”
Few details have emerged about the 777XF, which, unlike all previous Boeing commercial-derivative freighters, appears to be heading toward definition at an intermediate size between the existing passenger models. According to aerospace blog Leeham News and Analysis, the proposed 777X freighter is 227.5 ft. long overall, making it just 3.5 ft. longer than the 777-8 passenger version and a little more than 19 ft. shorter than the 777-9 from which it will be structurally derived. Boeing declines to comment on specifics of the new freighter.
As with the A350-950, the 777XF appears to have been extended from the baseline model to optimize range as well as improve the main deck cargo pallet capacity. The current 777F is 209 ft. long overall and can carry 22 96-in. X 125-in. X 10-ft. contoured pallets, four 96 X 125 X 116-in. contoured pallets and a single 96 X 125 X 116-in. pallet on the main deck.