Reports today suggest Airbus is actively canvassing the opinion of airlines on a potential A350 freighter aircraft. If it came to fruition, the A350F would be the first carbon-composite aircraft to undergo a successful transition to the cargo market.
For as long as the duopoly has existed, Boeing and Airbus have battled it out for their share of the commercial passenger jet market. But, during all that time, Airbus has never really broken Boeing’s stronghold on the market for commercial cargo planes.
Despite the introduction of the A330-200F, only 38 of the type ever sold. Airbus hasn’t sold a single -200F for six years. Although it has attempted to win back some business with its passenger to freight (P2F) conversions, the new build freighter market remains Boeing’s impenetrable fortress. But could all that be about to change?
Exclusive reports in Reuters suggest it could. The outlet has signaled that Airbus is in the process of putting out feelers in the airline world for support of an A350 freighter. With e-commerce and global lockdowns spurring an explosion in the cargo market, it could be a winning move from the European planemaker.
Although people familiar with the matter have told Reuters that there is activity at Airbus, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything significant anytime soon. Turning the A350 into a freighter is no easy task, given its composite construction, but a decision it took a long time ago could make the job easier than it might have been.
The rival Boeing 787 Dreamliner features a similarly composite construction but is manufactured in barrel sections. The A350, on the other hand, is constructed of solid panels, a decision which was seen as costly at the point of its development. Now, if it does want to ‘freighterise’ the A350, it will have a much easier job to do so than Boeing would with the 787.
Cutting a cargo door in a composite structure is always going to be more challenging than it would be in an aluminum body. If Airbus goes ahead with an A350 cargo plane, it would be the first of the new technology composite jets to successfully undergo this development.
Currently, cargo demand is at an all-time high. Given the lack of belly space in passenger planes at present, rates for cargo have skyrocketed. This has led to numerous airlines adapting idle passenger jets to use as temporary cargo haulers, even the A350 itself.
But that demand would need to remain sustained for some time for Airbus’ A350 to be a success. After all, there are plenty of second-hand widebodies around right now, ripe for conversion into cheap freighter planes. Not only that, but with airlines around the world struggling financially, taking a punt on an expensive new widebody cargo jet is likely to be a long way down their list of priorities.
Reuters estimates that the development cost of an A350F would be in the region of $2-$3 billion – no small amount. With Airbus reeling from a year where it lost more than a billion dollars, that’s money it can ill afford to spend on a potential white elephant.
While it’s exciting to see that an A350F is still on the cards, it’s likely to be a very long time before any firm announcements are made.