The logistics world’s prayers for more capacity are about to be answered – especially when it comes to volume space. In a dedicated press conference today (25JAN22), Airbus outlined its new commercial, global outsize cargo transport solution and ultimately the launch of its very own cargo airline next year.
You cannot help falling in love with the BelugaST, Airbus’s Super-Transporter, with its endearing, oversized forehead: a real treat for plane spotters as it makes its way from one Airbus production site to another, carrying its special load of aircraft sections. The BelugaST, however, is now literally ready to fly the coop. A new Beluga aircraft generation is standing in the wings (pardon the pun!), preparing to take over the ST’s job. So, it is time for a career change.
There’s a lot of life in them yet!
As Airbus focuses on ramping up its airliner production, a total of six, new generation and larger A330-200 BelugaXLs will be coming in over the next couple of years to replace the current five A300-600 BelugaSTs that are in service. Given that the BelugaSTs were designed to carry out 30,000 flight cycles and have so far only averaged half of these, there is still plenty of life in them: Airbus estimates around another 20 years. So, why not put them to good use, doing what they do best: transporting oversize cargo? Airbus is ready to enter the commercial cargo business, outside the boundaries of Europe, and has therefore launched a new service to offer cost-efficient, tailored, outsize cargo transportation to customers worldwide. It follows 3 years of preparatory work with freight forwarders and brokers to establish requirements.
“If you can't go to Paris, go to Kobe.”
“If you can't go to Paris, go to Kobe,” is apparently a Japanese saying given that Kobe is the country’s fashion mecca and a very cosmopolitan city. It also happens to be Airbus’ first commercial destination. In December 2021, the company’s initial mission and launch of its new global outsized-cargo service, was the transportation of an Airbus helicopter from Marignane, France, to Kobe, Japan. Beluga Tango Charlie (“No. 3”) flew halfway across the world, stopping to refuel at various transit points – including Warsaw (in Poland), Novosibirsk (in Russia) and Seoul (in Korea). The trip was meticulously prepared and ran smoothly, with ATI gaining experience in carrying out winter operations. The mission also highlighted Airbus’ key USP when it comes to cargo transport: unlike inside other aircraft, most cargo travelling on board of a BelugaST requires no disassembly prior to loading. In the case of this helicopter, it was loaded whole; only its long rotor blades were folded back.
Largest cross-section in the air cargo market
That is the true selling point of the Beluga: the fact that it has the world's largest interior cross-section, able to take cargo up to 7.1m in width and 6.7m in height. Phillippe Sabo, Head of ATI Air Oversize Transport at Airbus, says: “The Beluga’s wider cross section will open up new markets and new logistical possibilities – which would not be feasible with other current airborne transport means. For example, customers could consider in their future manufacturing process to make larger parts to be transported whole without prior disassembly.” No need for disassembly and assembly means quicker handling times, less complexity, less risk of damage or loss, and ultimately less cost in the overall transport operation. That makes the Beluga attractive to all kinds of industries – in particular, satellite, space, airline (AOGs such as wing engines, for example), helicopter, oil & gas and energy providers, machinery, land vehicles and other military equipment, and humanitarian supply distributors.
A new Airbus subsidiary, cargo airline
So, Airbus is offering a service to the market in which it has decades of experience. While the initial Beluga missions will be carried out by Airbus’ in-house ‘airline’, Air Transport International (ATI), using its own aircrew, the company will be launching a dedicated cargo airline as an Airbus subsidiary as soon as all BelugaSTs are fully available. The new airline, the name of which has not yet been revealed, will have its own Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and staff, and is planned to transition next year. Sabo explains: “Whereas the ATI structure is inherently focused around the European network of Airbus’ plants, the new airline which we will create, will be flexible and agile to address the needs of external markets. Moreover, it will have a worldwide scope and we will be organized for that around the globe.” The ramp-up to the new airline will see Belugas 2 and 3 (Tango Bravo and Tango Charlie) enter cargo service in 2022, with the other 3 coming in 2023 and the airline fleet being fully complete in 2024, latest 2025. Airbus also revealed that a BelugaXL might be deployed as a commercial cargo aircraft on occasion, on an exceptional need basis. The airline will be based in Toulouse to start with, with future decisions depending on market requirements.
Complementing not competing
During the press conference, Airbus repeatedly underlined that it sees its new airline as complementing the other aircraft types on the market. When asked about the competition, Reza Fazlollahi, Airbus Business Development Manager, emphasizes “We do not see ourselves as direct competitors. The AN124 does great job, especially with regard to payload. We will complement these oversize transport solutions and are specialized on volume as our unique selling point.” So, Antonov for large and heavy, Beluga for large and voluminous.
No shortage of pilots wanting to fly
Asked about whether the global pilot shortage was proving a problem in sourcing staff, Airbus said that given the Beluga’s very attractive and good image, finding pilots was not a problem at all. “Pilots love to fly the Beluga.” Airbus confirmed that it is sizing and modifying the organization in line with its ramp-up, bringing in more pilots since the crew sizing is currently only for Airbus activities.
Scaling up the hardware
“In addition, to better meet the demands of a truly international operation, the Belugas will be upgraded with a new generation Flight Management System (FMS) with ADS-B for enhanced intercontinental navigational capabilities,” the press material states. In the conference, Airbus presented three innovations to support the BelugaSTs fast “reactivity and short turnaround capability.” These are:
An automated on-board cargo loader (OBCL – for the autonomous loading and unloading of payloads up to 20 tons) to enable missions from/to airports which do not have available any suitable loading equipment. It will become available in June this year, following certification, is transportable inside the aircraft (stored in front of the internal payload hold area), and can be deployed within less than one hour.
The second, is a new redesigned transportable Outboard Platform (OP), currently under development. Eventually, at least six of these will be strategically pre-positioned at various airports around the world.
A new Multi-Purpose-Pallet (MPP) has also been developed and was first used during the Kobe mission. During the conference, Clément Beaunis, Beluga Transport Project Leader, also mentioned that the company would be looking into Class E certification of a fire protection system in the aircraft’s cargo bay.
So, it would appear that everything is in line to get the new cargo kid off blocks!
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