Why Is Airbus Lagging Behind Boeing In The Freighter Market?

In the commercial airline duopoly that is Airbus vs. Boeing, the two companies regularly match each other on the pace and demand for their passenger aircraft. However, in terms of freighter jets, Boeing is king. Why is Airbus lagging behind in this important market?

Korean Airlines KAL Dual Delivery 747-8I & 777-300ERK65568-01
Boeing has the market for cargo aircraft all sewn up. Photo: Boeing

Boeing dominates cargo

In the world of commercial aviation, the two heavyweights frequently battle it out. Airbus and Boeing have dominated the world of passenger aircraft for decades and frequently jostle for position at the top of the table for orders and deliveries of new jets.

However, in the freighter market, there is no contest. Boeing lists more than 760 freighter variants ordered by customers over its history, with 732 already delivered to customers. That’s not including the many combi aircraft sold by the manufacturer or the hundreds of passenger planes that have been converted to carry cargo.

Airbus has not sold a new-built cargo aircraft for almost six years. The last order was recorded in March 2015, with four A330-200F ordered up by Turkish Airlines. The A330-200F is the only cargo aircraft offered brand new by Airbus, and only 38 were ever ordered. All 38 have now been delivered, leaving Airbus with a backlog of zero new orders.

Airbus A330-200F
Airbus only offers the A330-200F as a factory-built cargo plane. Photo: Airbus

While Airbus is enjoying some success with its passenger to freighter (P2F) conversions, under a modification program offered by specialist Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW), it’s small numbers compared to Boeing. The A330-200P2F and -300P2F have seen eight planes redelivered to airlines already, with slots filled at EFW through 2022. The A320 and A321 are also on offer as P2F conversions.

Airbus is offering the A321 as a passenger to freighter conversion. Photo: Airbus

Nevertheless, Boeing continues to dominate the freighter market, so why hasn’t Airbus done more to challenge its position?

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Cargo is in Boeing’s DNA

Boeing has forever embraced freighter variants as part of its product lineup. Just about every type of aircraft ever developed by Boeing has been either offered as a factory-built freighter, or has been supported for passenger to freight conversions by the manufacturer.

The exception to this is the 787 Dreamliner, which has never been offered as a cargo aircraft, at least not yet. While this may change in the future, the truth is that Boeing has quite the widespread offering for cargo carriers already, so there is just no need to spend the time and investment in developing a Dreamliner freighter.

Cargolux's First 747-8
Boeing has designed the 747 from the ground up to be as capable as a freighter as it is as a cargo aircraft. Photo: Boeing

Right now, Boeing offers adequate choices for cargo aircraft, and is further supporting the market with its Boeing Converted Freighter (BCF) program. Although it is planning to draw a line under the 747F program, with the last aircraft to be produced by 2022, it has the cargo market all sewn up with the 777F, 767F and its 737-800 and 767-300 BCF.

Boeing is supporting airlines with converted second-hand aircraft too. Photo: Boeing

Could Airbus move into cargo?

The problem for Airbus is twofold. Firstly, it doesn’t have an aircraft in its lineup that adequately provides for the cargo market. Its A330-200F is narrower than the 777, and cannot accommodate two pallets side by side. Even with the improved efficiency of the A330neo, it would struggle to compete economically. To really challenge Boeing’s dominance, it would need to look to one of its larger aircraft.

THY 777F
The Airbus product line up can’t compete with the capacity of the 777F. Photo: Boeing

The A380F was proposed, but never developed. It did attract some orders initially, but issues with production delays of the passenger variant caused potential buyers to back out of the deals. With the A380 production ending this year, there is no more hope for this aircraft to ever work as a brand new freighter (although some airlines have attempted conversions amid last year’s cargo demand surge).

The remaining option for Airbus is the A350. On paper, it could work, with a higher payload than the A330 and efficiency improvements too. Indeed, Airbus discussed an A350F back in 2007, but wanted to focus on the passenger variants before turning any attention to this project.

With cargo demand continuing to remain high, there could be an opportunity for Airbus in the future with an A350-1000F. However, with so many widebody aircraft taken out of service in 2020, there are a plethora of cheap alternatives for cargo airlines to consider. As such, it’s unlikely to be a worthwhile investment any time soon.