Why Didn’t Airbus Base The BelugaXL On The A330-800?

The majority of today’s cargo aircraft are specially-designed versions of existing passenger aircraft. By filling the main cabin with freight instead of seats, cargo operators can use these to ferry all kinds of goods around the world much faster than by land or sea. But what about outsize cargo? European manufacturer Airbus has developed the ‘Beluga’ family for this exact purpose, but why is its most recent iteration not based on a more modern aircraft?

Airbus, Boeing, 2020 Deliveries
The Airbus BelugaXL is based on the A330-200 series, which itself has a freight variant. Photo: Getty Images

The Beluga family

Airbus’s first outsize cargo aircraft was officially named the A300-600ST (Super Transporter). However, after its introduction in the mid-1990s, it received a popular nickname, which has stuck ever since. Because its bulbous fuselage resembles a particular whale species, the A300-600ST is now widely known as the Beluga.

By 1999, Airbus had produced five of these striking aircraft, which were based on its first-ever widebody airliner, the A300. The Beluga is a heavily modified version of this game-changing twinjet, and allows Airbus to transport outsize components between its sites across Europe.

Airbus Beluga
The Airbus Beluga first flew in September 1994, entering service a year later. Photo: Colin Gregory via Flickr

After two decades of service, Airbus began the process of modernizing its aging Beluga fleet. Its new outsize cargo aircraft made its first test flight in July 2018, and is known as the BelugaXL. This larger and more modern behemoth entered service in January 2020, and is based on the Airbus A330-200F. But why didn’t Airbus use the next-generation A330-800 as a base aircraft instead?

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A330-200 vs A330-800

First of all, it is worth briefly touching on how the A330-200 compares to its next-generation counterpart. The -200 entered service with Korean Air in 1998, as a short-fuselage version of the original -300. This had been introduced by French carrier Air Inter four years previously.

Meanwhile, the A330-800 is the smallest variant in the ultra-modern A330neo series. Kuwait Airways received the first delivery of this type last October. Uganda Airlines followed suit two months later. Much like its older counterpart, the short-fuselage -800 entered service after the standard, longer version. In the A330neo’s case, the longer model is designated as the -900.

Korean Air Airbus A330-200
Korean Air introduced the A330-200 commercially in 1998. Photo: BriYYZ via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s look at some of the specifications for the -200 (listed first) and -800 (listed second).

  • Length – Both 58.82 meters.
  • Wingspan – 60.3 meters vs 64 meters.
  • Height – 17.39 meters/16.90 meters (-200F) vs 17.39 meters.
  • Range – 13,450 km/7,250 NM (7,400 km/4,000 NM for -200F) vs 15,094 km (8,150 NM).
  • Typical capacity – 246 passengers/70,000 kg of cargo (-200F) vs 220-260 passengers.

As we can see, there is little to separate the A330-200 and -800 in terms of their specifications. Both have similar dimensions and capacities, while the newer -800 edges performance-based aspects such as range, as one might expect.

Why not use the A330-800 for the BelugaXL?

However, Airbus had several good reasons to opt for the older -200 when developing the BelugaXL. One key factor is the fact that the A330-200 already has an established freight variant. This makes it easier to convert than the -800, which is yet to see such a development.

Airbus A330-800neo Toulouse Getty
The type certification and first deliveries of the -800 variant of the A330neo were highlights for Airbus in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

It is true that the -800 outperforms the -200 in terms of range. However, this is less important in terms of BelugaXL operations, as most of its trips will take place within Europe anyway. Furthermore, this advantage would likely be less significant in the event of a conversion, as cargo aircraft generally have lower ranges than their passenger-carrying counterparts.

Finally, time is also an important factor in this discourse. When looking at Airbus’s timescales in its rollout of the BelugaXL, the established A330-200 was much more conducive to meeting these. The new outsize cargo aircraft entered service almost a year before the A330-800. As such, using the newer variant as a basis for the BelugaXL would have negatively impacted the project’s timeframe. For now, the A330neo remains a passenger-focused family.

What do you make of the Airbus BelugaXL? Do you think it should have been based on the new A330-800 instead of the existing A330-200? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.