European planemaker Airbus is reportedly gauging the interest of airlines and customers for a potential future freighter version of its A350 wide-body passenger jet.
The COVID-19 crisis has not only increased demand for e-commerce, but also the movement of medical goods and supplies, which has seen freight demand skyrocket around the world.
Further, as more than half of the world’s cargo is usually carried in the bellies of passenger jets, the COVID crisis has necessitated a significantly larger number of dedicated freighter aircraft.
According to sources close to the matter, Airbus is thus investigating current market demand for a ready-built A350 freighter.
A new A350 freighter would be the first dedicated freighter released by Airbus since its A330-200F, which launched in early 2010, the first of its newest-generation carbon-fibre jets to become a dedicated freighter.
The launch of such a program is estimated to cost Airbus between $2 billion and $3 billion.
While Airbus has seen some success in its A330 and A321 passenger to freighter (P2F) programs, particularly in the last year, the launch of its only purpose-built freighter jet, the A330-200F program, received less enthusiasm.
The planemaker has delivered just 38 A330-200F jets since 2010, and has no outstanding orders for the freighter plane.
The model is sized between US rival Boeing’s 767-300F and 777F, however Airbus’ iteration of a dedicated freighter trails both models in both orders and deliveries.
As demand for cargo increased, Boeing reported that more than a third of the jets it sold in the past year have been freighters.
As such, analysts have raised concerns that Airbus will be unable to penetrate the dedicated freighter market, which is largely held by US rival Boeing.
Further, analysts believe the COVID-induced spike in demand for air freight may not be sustained long-term, as the cargo market is notoriously volatile and prone to extended downturns.
The launch of an A350F would be dependent on rallying enough demand from potential buyers, as the industry begins to prepare for post-COVID operations.
Analysts suggest that Airbus would need commitments for at least 50 aircraft in order to go ahead with the launch of the A350F.
“Given the A350 production rate has been cut … and the cargo market is the one bright spot in the wide-body market, one would have to say the likelihood of an A350F has increased compared to a year ago,” said Richard Evans, senior consultant at UK-based Ascend by Cirium.
An Airbus spokesman said that the planemaker is “always looking at product developments”, however the company could “not comment on specific programs”.
Sources also expect that any announcement from Airbus regarding a move towards a new dedicated freighter would push Boeing to follow suit, potentially with the development a 777X freighter.