European planemaker Airbus has confirmed that it is actively looking into the possibility of developing a freighter variant of its wide-bodied A350 aircraft, as it attempts to break into the Boeing-dominated cargo market.
Following months of speculation, Airbus chief commercial officer Christian Scherer confirmed that Airbus is in active discussions with customers who have expressed interest in a freighter variant of its widebody A350.
“Many of our customers have told us, ‘You have been a formidable force in this industry. … Please do so on the freighter market as well.’ That’s an important message to take into account,” he said.
“That has somewhat exacerbated the fact that the freighter market is underserved by Airbus today.”
While Scherer did not go into detail on a possible timeline for such a development, he did admit “we have some wind in our sails toward seeing the emergence of an A350 freighter”.
In April, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury told Bloomberg that the planemaker was ready to challenge its US rival, Boeing, with a modern A350 freighter. This would be in competition with Boeing’s potential 777X freighter, which is similarly yet to be confirmed.
The proposed A350-950F would fit between the A350-900 and the larger A350-1000 in size, as reported on World of Aviation last month, when rumours surfaced.
The larger jet would allow the option of carrying more pallets, while still flying long distances.
The development of the A350 derivative for freighter use would cost an estimated US$2-3 billion, and Airbus would need to secure orders for 50 aircraft before launching the program.
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.
However, Boeing has established a strong cargo market offering the 777F, 767F and its 737-800 and 767-300 BCF.
Airlines such as Qatar have been interested in purchasing more freighter jets, to which last month CEO Akbar Al Baker told Reuters that the airline would be interested in the Boeing 777X variant.
While Qatar is one of Airbus’ largest customers, quality control disputes between the companies have left the Doha-based airline searching for alternative jets from rival Boeing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen demand for cargo-dedicated aircraft spike. Before the pandemic, more than half of the world’s cargo was transported in the bellies of passenger aircraft, a trend that was impacted when COVID saw the world’s passenger aircraft grounded for months on end.
Despite a downturn in passenger demand for air travel, cargo air travel demand remained strong, favouring airlines with dedicated cargo aircraft and facilities.
The International Air Transport association noted in May that global demand, regarding cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs*), was up 12 per cent compared with April 2019 and 7.8 per cent compared with March 2021. Seasonally adjusted demand is now 5 per cent higher than the pre-crisis August 2018 peak.