Airbus nears launch of A350 freighter program

Airbus is moving ahead with the development of a freighter version of the A350 aircraft, sources tell Cargo Facts.

Sources say Airbus is actively pitching a freighter variant of the A350 to cargo operators, and would formally launch the new production freighter program once it secures a charter order.

In recent months, sales executives for the company, based in Toulouse, France, have approached cargo operators to gauge interest in a widebody freighter that would compete in a market currently monopolized by Boeing, sources say. While Airbus has long been evaluating the launch of a freighter program based on the A330-900, the successor to the A330-300, the factory-built A350 freighter may be newly prioritized.

Airbus could not be reached for comment.

Airbus has logged 935 orders for the passenger variant of the A350, and has delivered 349 of the aircraft type through January 2020, according to the company.

Were Airbus to move forward with an A350 freighter, it would represent the company’s first move into factory-built production freighters in the large widebody segment since its unsuccessful attempt almost two decades ago to establish an A380 freighter program. The large widebody segment is commonly defined as consisting of aircraft able to ferry payloads of more than 80 tonnes. The company currently builds two passenger variants of the A350: the -900 and the larger A350-1000.

Although Airbus could build either or both variants as a freighter, the larger A350-1000 is the likelier option, for its greater volumetric capacity. Estimated technical specifications position the 95-tonne payload A350-1000F as an alternative to the 777-200F and the 747-8F, Boeing’s active large widebody freighter programs. With a volumetric capacity of 800 m, the A350-1000F would be larger in volume than the factory-built 777F, which boasts volumetric capacity of 650 m3.

The average list price for the A350-1000 passenger variant was $366.5 million in 2018, according to a price sheet from Airbus. Most carriers secure significant discounts based on volume.

Until October 2019, when Israel Aerospace Industries and GECAS launched a passenger-to-freighter conversion program for the 777-300ER, an aircraft with specifications resembling the A350-1000 freighter would have enjoyed a unique market position. The 777-300ERSF, as the converted variant is known, could make an A350 program a tougher sell.

“It is unclear how an A350 freighter would fit into the global freighter fleet,” said Frederic Horst, managing director, Cargo Facts Consulting, a sister venture to Cargo Facts. “An A350-1000F would compete directly with a lower-capital-cost 777-300ERSF, whereas an A350-900F would compete with a 777-200F, but due to its lower design density, is a less-capable aircraft.”

Efforts to modernize and renew the current in-service fleet is forecasted to drive demand for large widebody freighters over the next two decades. Approximately 27.4% of the 621 in-service large widebody freighters are comprised of aging 747-400F variants and MD-11Fs. Over the next 10-20 years, many of these aircraft will need to be replaced. As the 747-8F’s future becomes less certain, carriers have demanded alternatives to the only other large widebody freighter in production — the 777F. Airbus had previously considered a freighter based on the A380 platform, but this is no longer in the cards now that the passenger program has been scrapped.

Horst doubts the A350F will replace freighter-converted 747Fs, factory-built 747-400Fs or even MD-11Fs.

“It is hard to see the A350F making inroads in that segment,” he said. “In fact, the ideal MD-11 replacement – at least for those operating in domestic and intra-regional markets – could turn out to be the freighter-converted A330-300P2F freighter, which has similar volume capabilities and is suited to express-type densities.”

Formal launch of the A350 program would likely require a sizable launch order from a major express carrier, sources familiar with the program tell Cargo Facts. Cargo Facts is aware of at least one Asia-based carrier that was pitched the A350F and declined to make a purchase commitment.

Airbus launched the A350 program in 2006 and delivered the first A350-900 to Qatar Airways in 2015. The Doha-based carrier was also the launch operator for the A350-1000, which entered commercial service in 2017.


By Charles Kauffman, Senior Editor, Cargo Facts