Airbus is talks with TNT Airways about the launch of a new-build A320 family freighter programme, but the ongoing sales surge for the passenger version could threaten the project.
The Liege, Belgium-based express package carrier is planning a "massive purchase" of narrowbody freighters to replace its Boeing 737-300F fleet and support its growth plans, says the airline's managing director Niky Terzakis.
"We put proposals to both Airbus and Boeing about new-build freighters. Airbus has been far more responsive than Boeing - it has worked quite hard to come up with proposals," he says.
The creation of a new-build single-aisle cargo aircraft would be a first for Airbus, which has so far only offered the A300-600F and A330-200F as factory-new freighters.
Terzakis says the discussions, which also involve leasing companies, envisage the production of standard passenger A320/A321s that would be ferried "green" to the EADS EFW plant in Dresden for the installation of the passenger to freighter (P2F) conversion kit that is being developed by the Airbus Freighter Conversion (AFC) joint venture with Russia.
The proposed TNT programme, dubbed G2F for "green to freighter", is mainly focused on the A321 airframe due to its larger payload and volume, says Terzakis.
Sources say that some 2012 production slots had been earmarked for the first G2F airframes, but these are believed to have since been allocated to customers for the passenger aircraft.
"With sales remaining strong out through 2012-13 for passenger A320s, the G2F proposal has struggled to generate traction," says a source, who adds that the project may end up stillborn.
Terzakis says that "there are ways to get delivery slots" for the G2F programme, and remains hopeful that the project could become a reality, but concedes that TNT may have to opt for the P2F conversion of secondhand airframes. "We aim to make a decision by early next year," he says.
While Airbus's chief operating officer customers John Leahy confirms discussions are being held with TNT, he says the G2F proposal "isn't the formula we've got. There is a big fleet of 20-year-old A320s out there and that's what it is."
Terzakis says another pressing concern is the replacement of the nine A300B4 freighters that serve TNTs European network. "If we go with Airbus for the single-aisle, the cockpit commonality benefits could push us to the Airbus widebody freighters," he says.
While the new-build A330-200F would be one option, Terzakis says that with volume rather than range being the carrier's main driver "we are looking at the A330-300 P2F". He says the replacements are needed by early in the next decade.