Boeing and Airbus have (re)started their battle on the next segment of the aircraft market: that of the new generation of big full-freighters. Airbus confirmed last week it is in discussions with numerous potential customers on the A350 Freighter and so now has Boeing. Boeing and Airbus ready for big freighter battle.

Vice President of Commercial Sales and Marketing, Ihssane Mounir, confirmed several customers are talking to Boeing on the 777XF, he said in a rare interview with The Seattle Times on September 26. “We have several customers talking to us about … the 777FX. (…) Watch this space. Things are gonna happen”, Mounir told the newspaper.

It is most likely that both airframers will make announcements at next month’s Dubai Airshow, where Airbus could reveal the launch customer(s) for the A350F and Boeing could launch the 777XF and announce customers as well. It’s no secret that Qatar Airways is keen to have both new freighters in its fleet.

Airbus officially launched the A350 Freighter on July 29 during the presentation of the HY1-results, a day after the Board of Directors approved the project. The new version, which will be largely based on the A350-1000, needs to restore Airbus’ position in the full-freighter market. The Europeans used to have a good position with the A300-600F but the A330-200F never copied its success. On the other hand, Boeing has captured a significant market share with the 777F of late as well as with the 767-300F and to a lesser extent the 747-8F.

Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer admitted in June during a media presentation that the “freighter market is underserved by Airbus today. We try to react to it. I must give some of our customer’s credit here.  On the one hand, the market has told us ‘Airbus, you have been a formidable force in this industry, please do so on the freighter market.’ That’s an important message to take into account.”
Scherer said customers told Airbus the A350 would make a formidable aircraft: “It’s range capability, its volume, its operating costs, its structural capability, and some of the technological choices you have made to find the right balance between metallic structural parts and carbon parts, that gives you a platform that would be a fabulous freighter.”

Remarks from CCO Christian Scherer indicate that Airbus already has sold the A350 Freighter. (Richard Schuurman)

Airbus hasn’t published any technical specifications of the A350 Freighter yet. CEO Guillaume Faury said in July that it will have a cargo capacity of 90+ tons compared to 65-70 tons for the A330-200F. Although predominantly based on the -1000 with its 319 tons Maximum Take-Off Weight, the Freighter could actually be slightly shorter than the passenger version but bigger than the -900 with its 280 tons MTOW. The A350F will likely retain most – if not all – of its 45 tons weight advantage over the 777F and/or XF.

The program was launched in July without announcing the first customer, which is unusual these days. On the sidelines of the Airbus Summit in Toulouse last week, Scherer replied to a question from AirInsight that “we are in a number of very encouraging discussions with potential customers.” He added that “the A350 Freighter is available for sale and is selling.” This remark seems to indicate that Airbus actually has already found a first buyer for the freighter.

777XF sales campaign seems immediate response to the A350 Freighter-launch

Boeing will probably never admit it, but it seems it has responded to the launch of the A350 Freighter by also offering the 777XF to customers in recent months. During a Bernstein conference in June, CEO David Calhoun was confident that Boeing would bring the 777XF to the market without going into details on the timeline.

While a freighter version of the 777-8 has been on the design boards for some time, Boeing’s priority has been to get the 777-9 back on track after regulators requested numerous system updates. As a result, the first deliveries of the -9 are not expected until late 2023. Even before the 777-9s first flight in January 2020 and the debate on the updates emerged, Boeing in 2019 froze the development of the passenger version of the smaller 777-8. It made Emirates President and CEO Sir Tim Clark complain openly on numerous occasions that he has no clue what the status of the 777-8 is, of which it has 35 on order.

Like Airbus, Boeing hasn’t shared any details of the 777-8F. The current 777F has a payload capacity of 102 tons and an MTOW of 347.8 tons. The passenger version of the -8 has a Maximum Take-Off Weight of 351.5 tons, so it’s likely that the freighter could see its payload capability grown to around 105 tons. By comparison: the 767-300F has a payload capacity of 52.5 tons.

In its latest Commercial Market Outlook presented earlier in September, Boeing foresees a market for 890 new full-freighters until 2040, slightly down from the 930 in the previous CMO. The majority has to be new-generation aircraft, as from 2027 onwards, new engine emission regulations come into play that effectively stops Boeing from offering the 767-300F and 777F. Christian Scherer noted last week that the A350 Freighter will be the only freighter that conforms to the latest emission regulations, but that’s without counting on the new Boeing.
During the CMO presentation, Vice President of Commercial Marketing, Darren Hulst, said that Boeing’s 777 freighter family will have a comfortable 100+ tons payload capacity that allows the triple seven to serve most of the cargo market that used to be the exclusive territory of the 747-400F and 747-8F.  

DHL has some very aging 767s in its fleet, with -200s being on average almost 38 years old. (DHL)

Boeing has been successful in recent years with full-freighter sales. So far this year, it has sold 30 777Fs to customers like FedEx, Lufthansa Cargo, Silk Way, and 21 unidentified customers. FedEx also ordered 18 767-300Fs, with another one ordered by an undisclosed customer. Atlas still has orders for four 747-8Fs, which will go out of production in 2022. Last year, Boeing sold 13 777Fs and 9 767-300Fs. It has unfilled orders for 50 767-300Fs (42 from FedEx, 2 from UPS, and 6 undisclosed) and for 61 777Fs (8 for DHL, 7 for FedEx, 6 for Hong Kong International Aviation, 5 for Silk Way West, 3 each for China Airlines and EVA Air, 1 each for LATAM and Lufthansa, plus 21 undisclosed).

Where will the battleground be?

So where is the battle for the A350 Freighter and 777-8F expected to be? Mostly as a replacement for the older generation full-freighters mentioned here before.
FedEx has a reasonably young Boeing fleet, but some of its 50 777Fs are getting around 10-13 years. Its oldest of 109 767-300Fs are around seven years. By comparison, the 757s are nearing on average 30 years, but the A350F and 777-8F are likely too big to replace them. At almost 26 years, the 65 Airbus A300Fs will also need replacement in the coming decade.

DHL also has high double-digit numbers of aging A300s, A330s, 757s, and 767s. The 767-200s based in Germany reach 38 years on average. The number of older freighters at UPS that will be up for replacement is around 150. Atlas Air has 26 767-freighters nearing 27 years of age. Lufthansa Cargo has bought extra 777Fs but these have only partly replaced the 18 McDonnell-Douglas MD-11Fs, of which the last will be phased out in October.

In June, Reuters identified Qatar Airways as one of the airlines that wished Boeing and Airbus to launch their new freighters. Its cargo business currently operates 28 full-freighters, including 26 777Fs and two 747-8Fs. Only last January, it parked the last three of eight A330-200Fs that had been in the fleet since 2012. On the back of the pandemic, when there has been a huge demand for freighter capacity, Qatar sees the need to expand its fleet.
The spat with Airbus over the paint quality of some of its A350s has disturbed the relationship between Doha and Toulouse and caused tensions when Akbar Al Baker went public in August to say that he would ground 13 -900s. AirInsight has learned that relations have improved since but it remains to be seen if this means that Qatar is willing to announce an A350 Freighter order anytime soon. Boeing and Airbus are ready to start their big freighter battle soon. Likely in Dubai.

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