Why Has Airbus Built The BelugaXL Aircraft Type?

Three BelugaXL aircraft have been added to Airbus’ fleet in 2020, as it heads towards a total fleet of six by 2024. This is a distinctive cargo aircraft, modified from the A330, with an equally distinctive smiling whale appearance. Airbus operates the Beluga and the larger BelugaXL to transport parts of its aircraft between construction and assembly sites, as this article explores.

Airbus plans to operate six BelugaXL aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Transporting Airbus aircraft parts

Airbus has its origins in the coming together of several European aviation firms. They joined together to form Airbus in 1970. As part of the cross-Europe collaboration, aircraft manufacture and assembly were (and still are) split across several countries. This brings with it a huge logistical challenge of shipping completed parts from one country to another for final assembly.

This was initially done by road and barge. Aircraft transportation was added in 1972 with a fleet of four modified Boeing Stratocruiser aircraft, known as Super Guppies.

The Airbus Skylink, or Super Guppy
The Airbus Skylink, or Super Guppy, was its first transport aircraft. Photo: Pinpin via Wikimedia

Eventually, though, these aircraft needed replacing. They were old and inefficient to operate, and additional capacity was needed. Airbus introduced the Beluga cargo aircraft in 1995 as a replacement. It was based on the A300-600, with a significantly enlarged fuselage for cargo transport.

While their primary role has been to transport Airbus aircraft components between European sites, they have also seen plenty of charter use, including carrying machinery, helicopters, and satellite parts.

Beluga and ISS
Beluga was used to transport parts for the International Space Station. Photo: NASA/Jim Grossmann via Wikimedia

Increased demand and larger aircraft parts

Five Beluga aircraft were delivered between 1995 and 1999. In 2014, Airbus announced it was starting work on a replacement aircraft based on the newer A330-200. This has become known as the BelugaXL, with the first aircraft delivered in January 2020. The third came in late October 2020.

The second BelugaXL launched in early 2020. Photo: Airbus

More aircraft will help Airbus meet growing transportation needs. But the aircraft critically has a higher capacity too. The Beluga can carry 47 tonnes in a freight compartment with a volume of 1,500 cubic meters. The BelugaXL increases this to 50.5 tonnes with a volume of just over 2,200 cubic meters. The BelugaXL also features newer systems for loading and unloading cargo, which should reduce turnaround times.

It will carry A350 components

With the production of the A380 coming to an end, the A350 is the largest aircraft from Airbus, and this will be the main focus of the BelugaXL. It’s increased cargo capacity is designed to take two A350 wings together; the previous Beluga could only transport one.

BelugaXL and A350 wings
The BelugaXL can transport two A350 wings. Photo: Airbus

With this as its main role, the BelugaXL will see a limited route map. This will include Broughton in the UK where wings are produced, as well as other sites in France, Germany, Spain, and China. Getafe in Spain was added to the route network in August 2020. The final assembly of the A350 is in Toulouse.

In 2019, Airbus was delivering 10 new A350 aircraft per month. The Belugas are likely to be kept busy if this rate continues (although it has decreased during 2020 with the slowdown in aviation).

Boeing has the Dreamlifter

Airbus is not the only manufacturer to have specialized aircraft to transport aircraft components.

Just four Dreamlifters were ever made. Photo: Getty Images.

Boeing operates the Dreamlifter for the same purpose. It converted four Boeing 747 to carry parts for the Boeing 787 from global supplier to assembly lines in the US.

Have you seen the new BelugaXL yet? Feel free to share any comments about it below.