Freighter Face-off – Boeing vs Airbus

By Kevin Swindlehurst | March 1, 2020

In the cargo world who’s winning?

We look at the two biggest aircraft manufacturers in a freighter face-off. Firstly both Boeing and Airbus have their strategic lifters. Boeing has the aptly named Dreamlifter and Airbus with the Beluga and the latest variant Beluga XL.

Boeing 747-400LCF Dreamlifter

So let us look at the Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, The Dreamlifter designed to transport Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner parts to the final assembly line. Due to the size of these parts, Boeing made the Dreamlifter from converted 747-4 passenger aircraft.

Beoing 747-400LCF Dreamlifter – Photography of Scott Wright (Creative Commons)

As a result of its stretched fuselage, the Dreamlifter is capable of holding three times the volume of a 747-400F freighter.

Another unique feature is, unlike most 747 Freighters the Dreamlifter main cargo compartment is loaded via a swing tail design. Despite its overly stretched fuselage, the range is still impressive at 4,200 nautical miles (4,800 mi; 7,800 km).

Despite the fact it was designed and announced in 2003 today it remains a vital airlift option for Boeing. Similarities can be found to the older Airbus Beluga. Let us jump in and look Airbus’ strategic lift aircraft.

The Swingtail design in action – Photography of Eric Salard (Creative Commons)

Airbus Beluga & Beluga XL

Now let us look at the Airbus Beluga and XL. Firstly the Beluga developed from the A300-600 by Airbus.

Airbus built 5 and flew for the first time in 1994. Made for the heaviest and biggest parts at the time the Airbus A340 wings. More noteworthy the Beluga has carried space station components and even helicopters. To place a perspective on the Beluga can carry an impressive 47 tonnes.

Airbus Beluga – Photography of Brian Bukowski (Creative Commons)

Due to retire within approximately 10 years Airbus needed a replacement. The Beluga XL developed and first took flight in 2018 and introduced into service January 9th 2020. Developed to be large enough to support Airbus A350 wings. However, due to the sheer size A380 wings are not capable to transport by the XL.

Capable of lifting a payload of 53 tonnes a whole 6 tonnes more.

Airbus Beluga XL – Photography of Julien Jeany (Creative Commons)

Now we have looked the seen both Strategic Lifters we look at the Commercial freight market. Does Boeing or Airbus win the Freighter Face-off?

The Freighter Market.

In a world where practically anything can be purchased online freight is a huge market. Firstly lets look at Boeing’s current offerings for freighters.

Boeing Freighter Family as of 2018 – Graphic courtesy of Boeing ©

Due to such demand for cargo Boeing can convert almost all their aircraft into freighters. Most noteworthy is the Boeing 727 despite not being in production is still in freight service. With a range of fewer than 45 tonnes of payload to over 80 tonnes, Boeing has a bigger product range. Due to the huge demand and over 1,870 in service as of 2017 Boeing predicts the market will nearly double to 3,260 by 2037. A welcome message for FedEx Express who operates the largest cargo aircraft fleet at approximately 678 planes with plans to expand this fleet with more Boeing Aircraft.   

So are Airbus falling behind in the Market?

At present airbus offers freighters in just the A330 family and the Beluga project. As a result of this Airbus have been pushing to develop and potentially convert other aircraft. Most noteworthy is the Airbus A321 freighter conversion which recently received its certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

However Airbus still have freighters in the A300 which had been converted which despite being no longer produced is still in service. Additionally the A310 was converted into a freighter due to its age airlines such as FedEx Express have retired them.

FedEx Express Airbus A300 – Photography of Aero Icarus (Creative Commons)

Additionally to attempt to gain a foothold over Boeing Airbus had plans to create an A380 freighter that idea, however, wasn’t viable and never left the drawing board. Therefore Airbus need other options and have begun designing the A350 freighter project. However, this would still fall short Boeing’s biggest freighters the 777-300f and 747-8f.

How would Boeing react to a new Airbus freighter? Boeing has been rumoured at looking for new freighter options such as a 787-9f or maybe an entirely new built. More stories have been circulating over a possible Boeing 797, however, this seems to be just speculation. Additionally, Qatar Airways urged Boeing to develop the new Boeing 777x into a freight option with the offer of even being a launch customer.

In conclusion, Boeing holds a dominant share in the Freighter Face-off. Airbus has to catch up if they wish to cash in on the lucrative market. New options could be coming shortly. Who will be first to develop the next model Boeing or Airbus?

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