Airbus will launch a dedicated airline next year for the transportation of oversized cargo, offering its Beluga ST-aircraft fleet. The airline will operate on a commercial basis to ferry odd-sized and voluminous goods like helicopters, boats, structures, or military equipment, Airbus announced on January 25.
The airframer has already been active in this niche market with one Beluga ST between 2001 and 2012 but stopped offering these services as the STs were needed for its own aircraft production requirements. This includes the transportation of wings, tailplanes, and fuselage sections between the various Airbus facilities. Commercial services have been re-offered since last December, when a Beluga ST flew an Airbus helicopter from France to Japan, with fuel stops in Poland, Russia, and South Korea.
Since the arrival of the bigger Beluga XL, Airbus’ dedicated airline Air Transport International (ATI) has some ST-capacity left to offer to the market. This year, two STs are offered by Airbus Commercial Services and operated by ATI, next year three, and in 2024 five will be available. From next year, Airbus will have one Beluga XL available for oversized operations if the ST isn’t big enough.
The new airline, which has no name yet and will get a dedicated Air Operator Certificate, will be operational from mid-2023. It will only offer transportation, as Airbus has no plans to sell the ST or XL to other operators.
Airbus has a fleet of five Beluga STs, which are based on the A330-600. The XL is based on the A330-200. They are characterized by their bulky cargo space, which can easily swallow the fuselage of an A320-family aircraft. The XL fleet will grow to six aircraft, which will be predominantly tasked with ferrying Airbus parts. There is sufficient capacity, even if the production of the A320neo-family aircraft goes up to 75 per month, as Airbus might decide on this summer. The STs still have fifty percent of their economic life available, so using them makes sense, says Philippe Sabo, head of ATI and Oversize Transport within Airbus.
Niche market for high valuable goods
Airbus thinks there is a market out there for the transportation of highly valuable goods like aircraft engines, satellites, and other products of the space industry, helicopters, machinery, military equipment, humanitarian goods, and for the oil and gas industry. Clement Beaunis, Beluga Transport project leader, said that the Beluga is particularly suited for voluminous goods that need the height and width of the ST or XL versus the ability of the Antonov An-124 to transport heavy goods. By comparison: the ST has a payload capacity of forty tons, the XL of 44 tons, and the An-124 of 150 tons.
Inside a Beluga, cargo is positioned on Multi-Purpose Pallets, which are placed on rails that span the full length of the cargo bay. For on and off-loading, Airbus is developing an On-Board Cargo Loader for cargo with weights of up to twenty tons. The loader or OBCL will be available from June.
The loader can work independently or in conjunction with the special Outboard Platform to load and unload the cargo. Airbus has now one ready but plans to base at least six of these platforms on strategic locations that are frequently visited. It can be quickly assembled and disassembled if a customer requires services elsewhere.
Active as journalist since 1987, starting with regional newspaper Zwolse Courant. Grand Prix reporter in 1997 at Dutch monthly Formule 1, general reporter Lelystad/Flevoland at De Stentor/Dagblad Flevoland, from 2002 until June 2021 radio/tv reporter/presentor with Omroep Flevoland.
Since mid-2016 freelance aviation journalist, since June 2021 fully dedicated to aviation. Reporter/editor AirInsight since December 2018. Contributor to Airliner World, Piloot & Vliegtuig. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.