Both Airbus and Boeing are famous for regularly delivering updates on their ten, twenty or even thirty-year forecasts for future passenger and cargo aircraft needs across the globe. They
make interesting reading - but sometimes one has to take the contents with “a pinch of salt,” - knowing that both companies are in the business to sell their aircraft.
Fact is though - demand for aircraft transport has grown tremendously over the past four to five decades and indications are that this trend, despite economic turndowns and tariffs just announced by the Trump administration to be imposed on Airbus and aircraft parts manufactured in Europe as of mid-October, will continue.
Is there a future for freighters?
This question has been asked quite a few times during the past decade where long-haul passenger aircraft running on two gigantic engines, are offering longer range, better fuel burn and more underfloor cargo capacity.
We’ve seen the “lady of the skies,” the B747 freighter coming to the end of its life as the B777F with its two engines and a payload not far off from that of the B747 becoming the new long-haul workhorse. Here again, Boeing continues as the leader in offering airlines better and more belly cargo space and freighter capacity. This also applies to aircraft conversions, the so called P2F (Passenger to Freighter) business where large numbers of phased out B737s and B767s are being converted into freighters and are quickly snapped up by express and e-commerce carriers.
Where does this leave Airbus?
Are they really serious about offering future freighter aircraft?
Much was reported a couple of weeks ago about the Airbus global market forecast for 2019-2038, whereby the Toulouse-based manufacturer states that they see a need for around 2,800 new freighters by the end of the next two decades. That would represent around 65 percent more freighters than are in service today. As Airbus quite rightly states in their report, many of today’s freighters will have to be replaced. They estimate 60 percent - that still leaves a growth factor of 40 percent, or almost 900 new freighter aircraft.
What’s also notable in the Airbus forecast is that they (as well as Boeing) see the global passenger and freighter fleets more or less doubling in size from today’s 23,000 aircraft up to 48,000 by 2038. This is attributed to their forecast that traffic is still expected to increase by just over 4 percent annually in the coming twenty years. The lions share of this growth will be the Chinese and Asia Pacific region, Airbus says.
The Airbus forecast goes on to show a need for 850 new freighters (excluding replacement aircraft for present fleets) by the end of 2038. A total of 500 of those are in the region of 40 to 80 tons payloads and the remaining 350 for larger plus 80-ton payloads.
Leaving the field to Boeing!
In the Airbus forecast summary, there is again the mention of 850 new freighters needed on top of replacement aircraft. However, what Airbus does not mention is whether they see themselves as an important player in manufacturing new generation freighter aircraft.
They have not been at all successful in freighter sales during the past two decades. The A330F, a great aircraft, has not sold well at all and some carriers operating them have either sold them off or put them on the shelf. One reason is the much lower payload compared to Boeing’s Triple Seven Freighter, which is more or less double that of the A330F. There has been a move lately to promote P2F conversions of Airbus A321 aircraft as a competitive move to Boeings B737 conversion programme. Some say that has come too late and is a half-hearted attempt to enter the market.
Some carriers have shown an interest in having a freighter version of Airbus’s latest flagship, the A350. It seems there has so far been little reaction from Airbus on this, although the aircraft could well be a competitor to the Boeing 777F in terms of payload, range and fuel efficiency.
If the forecasts by Airbus and Boeing turn out to be correct then how come Airbus is not making a move to re-enter the freighter development for the future. Or, are they just happy to leave that “growing” sector to Boeing?
John Mc Donagh
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