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Will the long-range wide-body freighter from Europe come right on time?

Airbus’ promising workhorse: The A350F

The European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has set itself an ambitious target: the company wants to achieve a market share of 40 to 60 percent in the freighter segment and thus break Boeing's market power. Up to now, Airbus has mainly relied on converting old passenger aircraft for its freighters. But what is the reason for the launch of this new freighter program, and how could the race between Airbus and Boeing develop in this particular field? We take a closer look at Airbus’ new freight workhorse, the current “freighter boom” and cautious concerns raised by industry insiders.

The new freighter race between the two aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing began in the summer of 2021, when Airbus announced the launch of the A350F program. The A350F freighter will be built in Toulouse and is scheduled to take off on its first commercial flight in the fall of 2025. Airbus states that the maximum payload of the A350F is 109 tons – however, the payload that can actually be used for freight and thus generate revenue is likely to deviate by a few percent.

To further optimize the A350F, the plane’s main hatch will be placed just behind the wings to keep the aircraft balanced during loading. Airbus is also planning to add a tailor-made version of the usual Rolls Royce engines for enhanced performance.

Boeing picks up the gauntlet

Boeing has now followed suit. The U.S. company will launch its 777-8F in 2027 at the latest. Initial key data points to an evenly matched competition: with both aircraft being almost the same length, Boeing puts the effective payload capacity of its plane at 112.3 metric tons, slightly higher than that of Airbus. 766 cubic meters of cargo volume speak for the 777-8F, while the A350F’s cargo hold spans 695 cubic meters.
But Airbus scores with completely different strengths.

Environment-friendly – for a plane…

Airbus claims the A350F is the most environmentally friendly freighter on the market. More than 70% of the A350F’s airframe is made of new materials, resulting in a 30-ton lower takeoff weight. Airbus says the A350F consumes about 40% less jet fuel than its rival’s Boeing 747-400F and about 20% less compared to the Boeing 777F.

In particular, the A350F’s promised lower fuel burn could now play into Airbus’ hands in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and thus operating costs. In addition to extremely high fuel costs, the entire aviation sector is under increasing pressure from policymakers and the public to drastically reduce its carbon footprint. This has been exemplified by the fast-moving discussion on sustainable aviation fuels, concepts for hydrogen-powered aircraft or aerodynamically shaped airplanes.

More than one year after the official program launch, the A350F has 31 firm orders, including four aircraft for Air France, seven aircraft for Etihad and seven aircraft for Singapore Airlines. In total, this is only seven orders less than were recorded for the A350F’s unsuccessful predecessor A330-200F. To reach Airbus’ ambitious goal of a 40-60 percent market share, there is still plenty of work to do.

The time is right

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 and the far-reaching flight restrictions for passenger aircraft, airlines had to shift their strategies. At the beginning of the crisis, the aim was to transport medical supplies, face masks and other protective materials across entire continents as quickly as possible. In the months that followed, airfreight was used as an alternative when sea shipping routes or ports were congested, such as during the Ever Given accident in the Suez Canal. This in turn led to an unprecedented run on air cargo connections, especially in 2020 and 2021.

Freighter boom in the airfreight industry

At present, the airline industry is witnessing a considerable trend towards more freighter solutions to cope with the growing demand for air cargo capacity. In its latest Commercial Market Outlook for the next 20 years, Boeing confirms this trend and forecasts a faster growth of the cargo business compared to the passenger business. Many supply chains continue to be disrupted due to the pandemic and its ripple effects, so that many components for key industries are still being shipped by air. With missing capacities from Russian airlines and additionally re-routed or cancelled flights, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has significantly reduced global airfreight capacity as well. Finally, the recent growth in e-commerce is pushing capacity demand even further.

Full order books for manufacturers

As a result, freighter aircraft are back in vogue. Converted passenger-to-freighter aircraft or “preighters” are the big driver of the capacity boom. Around two thirds of the new freighters entering the market will be refitted passenger aircraft.

In addition, wide-body models by Airbus and Boeing have reported a large increase in order volumes. Airlines which transported freight mainly as additional cargo before COVID-19 are now increasingly ordering freighters as a result of their changed fleet strategies. Lufthansa Cargo nearly doubled the capacity of their wide-body freighter fleet by ordering ten wide-body freighters as part of the largest investment in the company’s history. Air France-KLM also plans to add eight A350 wide-body freighters to its fleet.

The strong growth in airfreight capacity is further accelerated by sea carriers such as Maersk and CMA CGM, who have ordered massive numbers of freighters and will have large fleets within the upcoming years. Even smaller airlines rely on the purchase of new freighters, such as Saudia with an order of seven Boeing 777-300 “preighters” or Air Zimbabwe with an order of two Boeing 777F.

Rush leading to a bubble?

But there is also pessimism within the industry. Looking further ahead, cargo airlines such as Cargolux do not want to make hasty decisions. According to Cargolux CEO Richard Forson, the purchase of an aircraft should be considered as an asset for the next 20 to 25 years and evaluated with a long-term view. The unprecedented amount of freighter orders and the immense new capacities entering the market are raising the question of how sustainable the current demand boom will be. Could the bubble burst as higher inflation and the possibility of global recession start to impact demand? The past two years, which have been extremely lucrative for airfreight companies, seem to have tempted some market players to build up more capacity. Once markets and demands return to normal, this could lead to an oversupply which could affect not only individual companies but also the whole industry.

We are curious where the current developments in the industry will lead to, but one thing is for sure: the Airbus A350F will certainly have a significant role in this. Will this be sufficient to help them reach the aspired market share? Only time will tell, as several factors still hang in the balance…

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