An A350 cargo version is the latest development from European aircraft manufacturer Airbus to attack a market where it is not yet present, unlike its rival Boeing. Cargo traffic is the only sector of the aeronautics industry that is doing better than before the pandemic.
Few people know this, but a large portion of air cargo – nearly half – is carried by commercial passenger aircraft. As this traffic has dropped considerably with the pandemic, air cargo capacity has fallen sharply, forcing some airlines to use passenger aircraft in cargo mode, filling the holds and baggage compartments with packages and goods.
Compared to its competitor Boeing, Airbus is still weak in this market, but the cargo version of its A350 wide-body jet could well change the situation and put the two competitors on the same level, at a time when the world fleet is due to be renewed. The European aircraft manufacturer’s board of directors has approved the development of a freighter version of its long-haul jet, a market in which Airbus has been absent, leaving the field open to Boeing with its B747, B767 and B777.
For Boeing, this market was essential to limit the effects of the pandemic. With the wide-body sector heavily affected, more than half of the long-haul aircraft delivered in 2020 were cargo aircraft.
The pandemic has reinforced the role of cargo ships:
Of the approximately 25,000 commercial aircraft in service worldwide, only 2,000 are freighters, but these numbers have been subject to change with the pandemic. Traditionally, slightly less than half of the world’s air cargo was carried on dedicated cargo aircraft, with the remainder being carried via the cargo hold of passenger aircraft. Since the collapse of global air traffic and the implementation of traffic restrictions, 72% of global air cargo is now carried on dedicated cargo aircraft, making it the only sector in better health after the health crisis: in the first half of the year, cargo traffic was 8% above its level for the first six months of 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Airbus, currently virtually absent from this segment, produces only a few A321 freighters and no longer manufactures A330 freight versions. To compensate for this, the A350 freighter should enter service in 2025. Guillaume Faury, head of Airbus, says, “With the A350, we have a toolbox that allows us to make a cargo aircraft very competitively, quickly, and with low development risks.
The role of CO2 regulations:
“We see that the cargo fleet is very aging, and there is a wave of replacements ahead of us,” he added, before detailing: “CO2 regulations have become very strict and will make a significant number of aircraft in service and offered on the market today obsolete and non-compliant with regulations from 2028.
Aware of this phenomenon, David Calhoun, Boeing’s CEO, spoke about the need to “develop a new
version of cargo aircraft that complies” with future regulations, which should be derived from the future 777X.
With the Beluga XL development phase completed, and the A321 XLR well underway, Airbus design offices will be able to concentrate their efforts on the A350 freighter.
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