Boeing always had the measure of Airbus when it came to the new freighter market. But could environmental regulations change this?
If you are a cargo company and are in the market for new freighters, you have a few options. You can have the Boeing 767F, or the 777F… want a 747-8F? Sorry, the last ones are now spoken-for. In theory you could get an Airbus A330F, too… but you probably won’t. Airbus only ever sold 41 of these (or 38, according to other sources), having delivered all of them. No, when it comes to the new freighter market, Airbus can’t really hold a candle to Boeing. Today.
Stricter CO2 emission standards from ICAO are coming into effect in 2027. And among other things, they mean that Boeing won’t be able to sell new 767F and 777F aircraft beyond this date. The rules don’t apply to freighter conversions of existing aircraft, which bodes well for both Airbus and Boeing’s related programs. However, it will mean the end of all older-generation freighters.
Today, Bloomberg is bringing more news about the likelihood of an A350F. Boeing could be facing a freighter version of the most modern Airbus widebody, in as little as a month. Such an aircraft won’t be cheap, especially in comparison with big fleets of retiring 777-300ERs. But to those cargo operators that like to buy new, it will be an intriguing prospect.
The Airbus A350 Freighter Vs… Which Boeing?
An A350F would lie in size between the A350-900 and the A350-1000. This is to optimize the jet for pallet loads in different CG configurations. Airbus is judging market demand at the moment, but doesn’t need to hurry. However if they do decide to launch this aircraft, they need to do so in time for the 2027 deadline.
Of course the same applies to Boeing and a freighter version of the 777X. With no other freighter to produce and Airbus launching its own, Boeing will definitely follow. And presumably, the design of the existing 777F should make the process painless enough. But is a 777X freighter the right answer to an Airbus A350F?
The only current Boeing family of jets without a freighter version is the 787. And a 787F would be Boeing’s ideal answer, to an Airbus A350F. Both aircraft have composite bodies and wings, making them ideally efficient for even stricter rules. However the construction Boeing and Airbus used for the two jets have implications, when freighter use comes into play.
As Leeham News explained, the Boeing 787’s body uses composite barrel sections. Airbus uses smaller composite panels. This is harder to do, and drew criticism from Boeing when Airbus announced it. But Airbus’ method is easier to adapt to a freighter application than Boeing’s. It is not entirely clear if this applies equally to new jets or conversions. However, this information came from a Tier 1 supplier to both manufacturers, referring to new jets.
A New Balance Or Business As Usual?
This isn’t new information. What is a bit more recent is the fact that EPA signed off on the new ICAO rules in December 2020. Boeing will keep the 767 line open until at least 2027, if not a bit beyond, thanks to the KC-46 program. But the point is that 2027 effectively cancels Boeing’s lead in the freighter market. And previous manufacturing choices could mean that reacting to this loss, will be difficult for them.
If all goes well for Boeing, they will at least have a 777X freighter, to pit against Airbus’ A350. The two jets aren’t direct competitors, however. And obviously Boeing have more pressing priorities in their lineup over the next decade (mid-size plane) – and limited funds. Even if they can get around composite-related obstacles with the 787, Boeing wouldn’t/couldn’t launch TWO freighters at once.
The 2027 deadline doesn’t affect freighter conversions, and Boeing leads Airbus there at the moment. Airbus has been eating into this lead a little, with A330 and A321P2F programmes. For single-aisles, Boeing sees healthy demand for 737NG conversions. Widebodies may benefit from recent 767 retirements, to an extent. A330ceos are rapidly reaching retirement age, too.
With the 747-8F’s production ending, and with a deadline for the two other freighters’ production, Boeing’s freighter supremacy over Airbus could be at an end. To be fair, the 767’s production would be unlikely to continue much beyond 2027, anyway. And a 777-8F freighter will keep them in the market, when it comes. Plus, it would actually suit some airlines (Qatar?) better than an A350F. But can Boeing develop it and put it in service quickly enough?