Airbus’ dream of an A350F is not a new one. It goes back to the year 2007. Yet, according to Cargo Facts recently, Airbus may finally be close to making its vision, and its first real step into production wide-body freighters, reality.
Back in 2007, the idea was to develop a freighter version of the A350-900 which would have a similar capacity to an MD11-F, and a range of 9,250 km. The plan was to move on to the freighter
development once the passenger version, for which a first design proposal was originally presented in 2004, was built. The passenger version needed adaptation and the first passenger aircraft did
not come on to the market until 2014, with Qatar Airways becoming the first airline to employ this type from 2015 on.
Is enough interest in an A350F out there?
According to Cargo Facts, Airbus sales executives are currently talking to cargo operators to determine how great the interest in an A350F is. If Airbus generates enough demand and secures a charter order, it will start working on A350F, its first wide-body production freighter. That said, the company already offers a freighter version of the A330-900, as a successor to its A330-300. Its previous A380F idea, unveiled at the 1990 Farnborough Airshow, as an alternative to the B747, never took off (pardon the pun!). Had it done so, it would have been the largest freighter in the world, (not taking into account the single Antonov An-225 Mriya), with payloads of 80t, and a better long-distance range to the B747. At time of publication, Airbus had not yet made a statement regarding the A350F rumor.
The A350 passenger version is a popular aircraft selling at USD366.5/piece (not taking volume orders into account), with 935 orders being made and so far 349 of them delivered. The aircraft comes in two versions: A350-900 and A350-1000. The latter, being the larger version, is now be the favorite to feature as freighter version and would rival both the B747-8F aircraft and the B777-200F, which it would actually outperform in terms of volumetric capacity by around 30%.
Does the A350F have a future
According to the Aero Telegraph back on 28Jun19, both Qatar’s CEO, Akbar Al Baker, and Cargolux’s CEO, Richard Forson, expressed their interest in an A350F when speaking to journalists at the Le Bourget 2019 Paris Airshow. This was after Al Baker had ordered five more B777X, while Forson, though also interested the B777X, stated at the time that: “I think the A350 is a very good model for a freighter version.”
Another airline asking for an A350F back in 2012 already, is Cathay Pacific. At that time, Nick Rhodes, Director and General Manager Cargo, was interested in a cargo version of the A350 XWB, stating "There is a market niche for such an aircraft. In the future there will be more need for twin-engine freighters."
Cathay Pacific operates an aging fleet of 21 B747F variants, and has ordered 46 A350s as passenger planes, so the interest for a uniform fleet of freighters would be given. In 2012, Airbus pointed to 2020 as a possible A350F launch date, stating that the freighter version would come once all passenger A350 versions were completed.
Since then, however, coronavirus has grounded over 120 Cathay Pacific planes and the company is taking measures to minimize the huge financial impact caused by the current, extraordinary situation.
It is unlikely to make any large investments in new freighters soon. Qatar already numbers 21 B777F (next to its 2 B747-8F and 5 A330F), with another 5 B777F due to join the fleet in APR20. Other cargo airlines, such as Lufthansa Cargo, have also built up their fleet with B777F so far, or, for economic reasons, prefer to invest in P2F models, of which there are plenty coming to replace aging B747-400s and MD-11 fleets.
Cargo Facts Consulting is skeptical
Cargo Facts Consulting’s Managing director, Frederic Horst, is skeptical about the success of an A350F, stating: “It is unclear how an A350 freighter would fit into the global freighter fleet. An A350-1000F would compete directly with a lower-capital-cost 777-300ERSF, whereas an A350-900F would compete with a 777-200F, but due to its lower design density, is a less-capable aircraft. […] It is hard to see the A350F making inroads in that segment [ converted B747-400F / MD11 replacement]. In fact, the ideal MD-11 replacement – at least for those operating in domestic and intra-regional markets – could turn out to be the freighter-converted A330-300P2F freighter, which has similar volume capabilities and is suited to express-type densities.”
The 330-300P2F was also a clear favorite in the panel discussion at the recent Cargo Facts EMEA conference in Frankfurt, Germany, earlier last month. In online aviation forums, Frederic Horst’s
skepticism is echoed in the user comments, who point to the expensive cost of production freighters, the more economical P2F types, and the reliable and well-established B767 / B777 aircraft, for
Airbus secretive but hopeful
Airbus has yet to confirm the statement that the A350F is going ahead. However, according to a report published in Air Cargo News last year, Airbus has predicted that more than 850 new-build freighters will be required over the next two decades. What sounds like a lot, is, according to Airbus’ CCO, Christian Scherer, not an insignificant figure, but it did “not rock […] the boat either.” He broke the number down to around 499 of the new-build aircraft being in the “medium” category (payloads of 40-80t), whereas the rest would be looking to the over-80t “large” category. He predicted then, that of the 2,500 freighters, (new and converted), operators would be requiring during the 2019, 60% would be replacement aircraft, whereas 40% would be invested in for growth reasons.
With the aviation world currently mostly in freeze-frame, it remains to be seen if the A350F rumor will become reality.
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