To date, the freighter market has been clearly dominated by Boeing. Yet, with the cargo version of the A350, Airbus is now stirring things up in this aircraft segment. It promises lower costs and a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Here’s a look at the newcomer, to be followed by a report on its soon-to-be competitor, the future Boeing 777XF.
Competition stimulates the business, as the saying goes. However, there has not been any in the cargo market for decades. While Airbus shook up the market for passenger jets and transformed
itself from a nobody to Number One, the company neglected the cargo segment. This is probably also due to the fact that the company's own General Market Forecast underestimated air cargo for such
a long time. Ten years ago, the study still predicted a freighter demand for just 880 aircraft over the next two decades, half of which would be new builds and half conversions. In the meantime,
however, the market researchers from Toulouse have revised their estimate to 2,440 aircraft, including 560 widebody cargo aircraft with payloads of more than 80 tons.
From dabbling to double-downing
With the A300-600F and the A330-200F, Airbus launched a total of two freighters in the more than 50 years of its existence, yet neither stood a chance against the B767-300F. The freighter version of the A380, for which Airbus was able to win FedEx and UPS as launch customers, remained a project from the early days of the super jumbo.
With the A350F, however, Airbus has now made an impact that will finally lead to the competition in the widebody freighter market that customers have always wanted. Since Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, had already emphasized in spring 2021, that Airbus wanted to strengthen its presence in the freighter market, the official launch a few months later, during the press conference to present the half-year figures, did not come as a surprise.
Who needs details, anyway?
What was surprising, however, was that the go-ahead was given without Airbus being able to present a launch customer. The key points regarding payload and range were also more than vague, a clear indication of the discussions going on behind the scenes with potential customers. Yet, that swiftly changed in November 2021 during the Dubai Air Show, when leasing company Air Lease Capital also announced the purchase of seven A350F as part of a deal for a total of 104 Airbus aircraft. Steven Udvar-Házy, ALC's Chief Executive Officer, said there were interested parties from Europe, North America, and Asia for the A350F lease. Negotiations with leading cargo airlines were already underway. Airbus has since received orders for 28 more aircraft: Air France (4), CMA GCM (4), Etihad (7), Martinair (4), Silk Way West Airlines (2), and Singapore Airlines (7).
Already a star on the passenger firmament
Airbus has hit the jackpot with the A350. Ten years after its maiden flight, more than 500 aircraft have already been delivered. Pilots, passengers, and airline controllers alike rave about the aircraft. It is quiet, economical, and comfortable. Its fuel consumption sets standards, as does its reliability - virtues that the cargo version is also expected to possess.
The A350F is based on the A350-1000. It will have the same maximum take-off weight of 319 metric tons. However, its fuselage will be shortened by three meters. It can accommodate 42 pallets and allows carrying a maximum payload of 109 tons, which is 4.5 tons more than the current B777F is able to uplift. Cargo volume will be 10% higher compared to the Triple Seven freighter aircraft. With a total of 695 m³, the A350F offers the market as much volume as the B747-8F's main deck.
Less is so much more!
Over a distance of 7,000 kilometers, the A350F will produce 20% fewer CO2 emissions than the B777F, and even 40% less than the B747-400F, according to Airbus figures. This is partly due to the fuel-efficient Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, but also to the aircraft’s lower structural weight. The A350F is made of more than 70% carbon fiber and other high-tech materials. The A350F will be 13 tons lighter than the B777F and is expected to use 15 tons less fuel on the Anchorage-Shanghai route. Compared to the B747-400F, the payload advantage is 49 metric tons, which equates to annual savings of US$15 million.
The A350F's cargo door is the largest on the market. All future turbofan engines will also fit through the 45.19 m x 3.16 m opening. The size also speeds up loading and unloading. Since the cargo door is to be located close to the trailing edge of the wing and thus close to the aircraft's center of gravity, there is no risk of the A350F shifting and tipping onto its tail during loading.
A nose for what’s really needed
Among other aircraft versions, Airbus is targeting the A350F as the successor to the B747-400F and -400ERF, of which Boeing delivered 166 between 1995 and 2008, and which are now due for retirement. According to Airbus, the folding nose, the trademark of the cargo jumbo, is only used in 1% of all loading operations, namely when it comes to extra-long cargo items.
Airbus is moving ahead at full speed with the development of the aircraft. The first customers should be able to take delivery of their A350Fs as early as 2025.
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