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December 3, 2023
Airbus A350-900
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Airbus will definitely launch a freighter-version of the A350 but only once the business case is done. During an online Commercial and Program Update media event on June 15, Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer acknowledged that the market is pushing Airbus for an A350F. Customers push Airbus to launch A350F.

The full freighter market has changed dramatically. A few years ago, airlines like Air France-KLM/Martinair disposed of many of their full-freighters as they preferred to use belly cargo space on passenger flights to the maximum. The pandemic has changed this. Without the availability of most of the long-haul passenger network, airlines have been forced to convert passenger aircraft for cargo-only operations, often removing all seats from the cabin. Full-freighters are used to maximum capacity and availability. It is expected this trend will remain for the foreseeable future.

Boeing has been the winner on the full-freighter market for a couple of years now. With the 777F and also the 767-300F, it has won multiple orders from cargo operators like UPS, FedEx, Volga Dnepr, and DHL, but also from Qatar Airways. Other airlines, like Amazon’s Prime, have purchased ex-passenger 767s and converted them into full-freighters. Looking at the numbers, Boeing has sold 200 777Fs with 49 unfilled orders, while the 767-300F has 195 deliveries and 37 unfilled orders. These exclude passenger to freighter conversions.

Airbus A330-300P2F

Interior of a converted Airbus A330-300P2F. It looks big, but the maximum capacity is only 60 tons. (Airbus)

Airbus has always been lagging behind in the freighter market. It offered its A330-200F, but its cargo capacity is a maximum of seventy tons. That’s more than the 52 tons of the 767-300F but far less than the 102 tons of the 777F. A converted A330-300P2F doesn’t make a difference as its maximum payload is only sixty tons. The weaker position of the Airbus freighters is confirmed by the order book: it lists only 42 A330-200Fs and currently eight -300P2Fs.

‘A350 would be a fabulous freighter’

So customers push Airbus to launch the A350F. The pandemic has “somewhat exacerbated the fact that the freighter market is underserved by Airbus today.  We try to react to it. I must give some of our customers some 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.

“Others, and often the same have said ‘Look, do you realize you have a really good platform with the A350 to turn this aircraft into a freighter? Its 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, give you a platform that would be a fabulous freighter.’

Scherer said that Airbus to some extent is now reacting to this market forces, but added: “We have seen some wind in our sails emerging towards an A350 freighter as we consolidate our studies and our business case.” This means the launch will come later, although some have expected the launch to be the actual topic of today’s media event. They will have to wait at a later date. Airbus has looked at a freighter version of the A330neo, but these plans seem to have stalled.

According to some reports, the A350 Freighter will be based on the -900 but receive a slight fuselage extension beyond the current 66.80-meter length, which already three meters over the 777F. The Maximum Take-Off Weight of the passenger A350-900 is 280 tons. The -1000 would seem too large for a freighter at 73.79 meters and its MTOW of 319 tons.

As Scherer stressed earlier in the media presentation, the A350 is 45 tons lighter than a 777. A Freighter-version would place it competitively against the muted 777X-F which Qatar Airways seems to be eying. This variant, most likely based on the 777-8, yet needs to be launched too and the future of the -8 is still unconfirmed either. At a recent Bernstein event, Boeing CEO David Calhoun indicated that a freighter version of the 777X will eventually be launched.

Suppliers committed to single-aisle ramp-up

During the media event, Executive Vice President Programmes and Services, Philippe Mhun, said that Airbus’ suppliers have responded positively to the proposed ramp-up of the single-aisle models. Airbus said in May it plans to increase the A320neo-family rate from 40 now to 45 in Q4, 64 in Q2 of 2023, rate 70 in Q1 2024, and potentially 75 by 2025.

He said Airbus has a “robust commitment to support the ramp-up.” Asked by Airinsight to which level, Mhun explained: “For sure, the rate 64 is a commitment. Rate 70 is a scenario that we asked them to investigate as a longer-term view. Rate 75 is an investigation, but we need to understand what are the drivers, the bottlenecks. This is what we wanted to trigger, to have the right topic on the table to be sure that we will be able to address the bottlenecks and then reconsider the production rates if needed. Consider rate 64 and 70 really as our journey and 75 as an investigation.”

While the majority of the A320neo-family aircraft will be assembled in Hamburg and Toulouse, Mobile (Alabama), and Tianjin will also contribute to the ramp-up. Mhun said numbers in China will go to rate six per month.
Production of the A220 in Mirabel will be streamlined to include a pre-FAL line on which various parts are pre-assembled before they arrive on the final assembly line. Airbus will use space at Mirabel that has been abandoned by the ex-Bombardier/Mitsubishi CRJ-program.

Airbus is still negotiating with suppliers about cost reductions on the A220 program, which it bought from Bombardier in 2018. Further standardization of products and optimization of the production with higher rates will also bring down costs. “We are on track with our initial expectation in terms of what we can reach. We still continue to bet on the product and invest in it and it will be an important pillar in our portfolio strategy. We will bring the aircraft to where it has to be in order to be a profitable product”, said Philippe Mhun. He nor Scherer wanted to elaborate on a possible stretched A220-500.

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Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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