Reports suggest that Airbus is seriously considering the possibility of an A350F version of its newest widebody design. And now might be a good time for something like it!
The reports come from the airlines, who suggest that Airbus is consulting them about an A350F. The aircraft would likely use the airframe of the A350-1000. This approach comes at a time when cargo operators are facing some of the highest demand ever. And while such a new aircraft would take years to enter service, freight operators now have some money to spend.
Airbus has had a somewhat sketchy history, with freighters. Currently, the A330-200F is its only newly-built offering. But nobody has ordered one in six years. They eventually began offering passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversions, through a partner. These are for both the A330 and (more recently) the A320-200. But these developments are quite recent. It’s worth pointing out that Airbus had the much older A300-600F in production until 2007!
An A350F would be a bit of a departure for Airbus, in this regard. Sort of. The first time the company floated the idea of an Airbus A350F was, coincidentally (?), in 2007. At the time the model Airbus had in mind was the A350-900. The idea was to create something that would replace an MD-11 freighter. This is a bigger category of freighter aircraft than Airbus ever contemplated – other than the ill-fated A380F.
The Airbus A350F Entering Boeing’s Waters?
When it comes to freighters, Boeing basically has every base covered. For widebodies, they offer cargo versions for the 767, 777 and 747 – the latter until next year. Except they’ve now sold all of them. On top of that, they have a strong conversion program, with more independent companies offering their own versions, for both single and twin-aisles.
Airbus, on the other hand, only offer that A330-200F. It compares reasonably well with the 767, the smallest of Boeing’s widebody options. But in the freight world, size definitely matters. The 777F can fit two pallets or ULDs side-by-side in the cabin. So can those old MD-11s. The A330 and 767 are too small for that. But an Airbus A350F, would. And that might make it an interesting prospect for cargo companies.
And the timing for this aircraft could actually work. Like everyone else in aviation right now, the two aircraft manufacturers are saving cash. But of the two, Boeing is definitely the one struggling the most. Airbus could scrape together enough money to start work on an A350F. They also have the time, development-wise. Their only current project (as far as we know) is ironing out the last wrinkles in the A321XLR.
Boeing, on the other hand, are wrestling with delays in the 777X program. They really need to concentrate on that, plus finish checking and sorting out the 787 production – and its move east. And of course there is still work to do in the MAX, both with certification and the MAX-10. So if Airbus pushes ahead with an A350F, can Boeing respond with a 777X freighter? The answer would probably be yes – but it wouldn’t be a quick response.
Airbus Composites Fit For Cargo?
The same probably goes for the 787, the only Boeing widebody not currently having a freighter version. Also, the 787 has a composite fuselage – like the A350. Reuters, who reported Airbus’ A350F probing, suggests that the latter could have an advantage over a 787F. The composite structure of the Boeing uses barrel sections. That of the A350 uses panels. These (more expensive) panels could be easier to adapt to cargo use/manufacturing.
It will be interesting to see how airlines and cargo operators react to the idea of an Airbus A350F. The manufacturer would want at least 50 aircraft commitments, to launch the project. Development cost would run at $2-3 billion. And crucially, such a project could eventually allow Airbus to speed up production for its widebody. With demand for passenger widebodies in general being very low, they have had to scale back production substantially.
And there is another problem. Airbus has to consider the booming freighter conversion industry. Companies making such conversion are doubling or tripling output, to meet short-term demand. A new aircraft would have to compete with them… maybe. Again, an Airbus A350F would fit those side-by-side pallets. Existing conversions for 767s and A330s can’t necessarily compete with that.
Old Vs New Competition
But IAI in Israel and GECAS have started work on a 777-300ERSF conversion. This would do the trick, and it will take advantage of many 777-300s that airlines have retired in the pandemic. However it will still take some time to get ready – as would an Airbus A350F, of course. But for long-term efficiency, a new A350 would run circles around a 15-18 year-old 777.
The question, however, is if this matters. As we have seen, cargo operators aren’t necessarily prioritizing efficiency the way passenger airlines do. And this is something Airbus will need to find out, as it probes airlines for an A350F.
Over a third of all widebodies Boeing sold in the last year were freighters. This is a hard statistic to ignore, even with the circumstances of the last twelve months. But Airbus’ probing for interest in an A350F, suggests they are once again re-examining their cargo line-up. Or the lack thereof..!