Airbus has not had the best of times with freighter programmes in the past five years. First orders for the A380 freighter melted away due to delays with the passenger version, and then last year a planned A320 passenger-to-freighter joint venture was abruptly cancelled.
The A330-200 Freighter has also had its rocky moments, with its 2007 launch just in time to catch the global economic downturn, and orders dropping from 77 at their peak to 58 today. Then there was clamour for an A330 passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion programme to be launched, a step Airbus seemed to be reluctant to take, perhaps for fear of cannibalising production freighter sales.
This last indecision at least seems to have been resolved, with EADS EFW, Airbus's conversion arm announcing the launch of a programme in February. Engineering development - something Airbus is too over-stretched to do itself - will be performed by ST Aerospace. The first deliveries are expected by 2016.
But will the converted freighters cannibalise demand for the production freighter? Even with its reduced order book, 29 of the outstanding 47 orders for the A330-200F are destined for lessors, all of whom are doubtless hoping to place the aircraft once the global economy recovers in a year or two. Will the prospect of cheaper conversions on the horizon undermine that market, as well as further production sales?
As it is, the production freighter has arguably made a reasonable start, given the economic conditions. It won a new order of four aircraft from Avianca in September, its first Latin American customer, and as Jon Lesieur, freighter marketing manager for Airbus, points out, carriers who are already operating the A330F have also committed to further orders.
These include Etihad, the launch customer, which in January added two orders to the existing two it has in service. Turkish Airlines and MASKargo, the cargo arm of Malaysian Airlines, also boosted initial orders (MASKargo has four already in service, Turkish has two, with three to come). MNG Airlines of Turkey is about to become the latest carrier to take delivery.
Perhaps even more crucially, China - a key market that Airbus wants to conquer - is taking to the freighter. Hong Kong Airlines has three in service, leased from Aircastle, and five orders from BOC are destined for Yangtze River Express, with the first to be delivered later this year.
Even the fall in orders since 2007 can be explained away. One early order for 12 was from the mysterious Flyington Freighters of India which never saw the light of day, and some lessors switched from freighter to passenger orders simply because of unexpectedly strong demand on that side.
"There is good demand for passenger A330s at the moment, and we happened to close some campaigns there," says Volker Fabian, Intrepid's chief commercial officer, at Intrepid, which changed five of its 20 orders to passenger last year. "But the freighters are a great medium- to long-term asset, and I continue to be very positive about them."
This still leaves 29 lessor orders (15 for Intrepid, eight for Oak Hill Capital/Avion and six for MatlinPatterson) for which there are no announced customers as yet, and into this mix the A330 conversion programme has now been added.
Details are still being worked out for this, but early P2Fs will almost certainly be A330-300s, the oldest of which is now 19 years old. This will likely have 60-61t of payload, initially - for conversions of early 209t MTOW models - with range of 2,300nm, though eventually with a range of 3,600nm once 21st-century 233t MTOW conversion candidates become available.
This compares with a payload of 65t over 4,000nm or 70t over 3,200nm for the factory-built freighter. Conversions of the A330-200, which entered service in 1998, might have a payload of 59t over 4,000nm.
In 2011 EFW executives made bullish predictions about the orders that might flow for a conversion programme, but none have yet materialised. In particular, Qatar Airways, which pushed so vocally for the P2F programme to be launched, has so far been silent. "We have no communication so far on orders, or on the type of aircraft we'll be using for conversion," said the airline when approached for this article.
Not surprisingly, John Howey, director of sales for EFW EADS says it is in dialogue with Qatar and other potential customers: "That being said, there are a lot of details to be discussed until we have a product that satisfies Qatar's needs."
Another unspoken potential customer for the conversion was surely FedEx, which has 76 MD-10Fs for which the A330-300P2F might seem the perfect replacement, as well as 71 A330-600Fs and 54 A310Fs for which the A330-300P2F would be an upgrade (28% more payload and volume than the A300-600F, and so the same cargo density). However, FedEx instead ordered 27 new 767-300ERFs in December, saying these were to replace its MD-10Fs.
This matters because Airbus pitches the -300P2F - with its extra 2,500sq ft of volume and three to four extra maindeck positions - as the ideal package freighter. By contrast it sees the factory-built -200F, with its greater range and density, as appealing to general cargo operators.
Howey points out that FedEx was a big customer for A300 and A310 conversions in the past, and that it has 130 aircraft that the A330F might ultimately replace, not to mention future regional fleet growth. "It is important to remember that the A330P2F will be around for at least 20 years or so," he says. "For much of that time we'll be the only player in the medium widebody sector."
Otherwise, Howey sees demand in China, Southeast Asia, Russia and Latin America as trade within those regions develops. China is particularly exciting. "The freighter fleet in the US increased fivefold between 1980 and 2000, much of it on the back of the express operators. China is at the very beginning of that growth curve, and in the end potentially much bigger."
Question marks over the conversion programme include feedstock - at least in the shorter term until A350 deliveries start in 2014. If the A330 passenger variant remains so popular, will residual values come down enough?
There is also the question of the cost of the conversion. The A330-200 has a nose-down attitude in passenger operation that has to be corrected for freighter operation, and as a more modern aircraft than those previously converted, more precisely engineered to purpose, will need more work to design and simulate the modification. This will make it more expensive than the A300-600 conversion - but still cheaper than the production freighter, of course.
In the meantime, owners of the A330-200F seem happy, praising the aircraft's economics, its versatility on both regional routes and longer hauls - such as Istanbul to Shanghai, or Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt via Dubai - as well as its ability to operate into smaller markets for which a B747F would be too large.
Fabian at Intrepid insists that there is huge interest from other carriers, particularly in Asia. "Every airline we talk to there sees it as a fantastic aircraft for flying in the Asia-Pacific and to the Middle East, and if it was not for the global economy, I think we would already have a number of customers," he says. "These are larger carriers with widebody equipment who feel the A330 would be the perfect complement to those larger freighters."
For this reason, Fabian reckons that once the global economy recovers, the A330F will be very successful, but the question remains: successful for whom? Lessors, Airbus and EFW have all placed their bets. Can they all get the returns they are hoping for?
Max Kingsley-Jones wrote a technical description of the A330-200F in 2010. Read it at flightglobal.com/a330-200f