A new generation of super-freighters is on the way from Boeing and Airbus

Guy Norris/LOS ANGELES Julian Moxon/PARIS

The air cargo industry has been talking about it for the best part of a decade but a new super freighter version of the ultra-large A380 has been launched by Airbus and Boeing is embarked on the heavier, more capable, Longer Range 747-400F.









Maximum take-off weight


Maximum landing weight


Fuel capacity

310,000 litres

Cruise speed


Maximum operating speed


Maximum range


The A380-800F is the first freighter from the Toulouse, France-based manufacturer to be designed and launched in parallel with the passenger version, a reflection of how seriously it takes the cargo market. Sales of the freighter version of the ultra-large airliner are off to a good start, with 14 orders from three airlines - FedEx Express (10), Qatar Airways (two) and Emirates (two). This represents around 25% of the total sales of the A380, which stand at 62 aircraft from eight customers.

"We expect to sign up more freighter customers before the end of the year," says Didier Lenormand, Airbus director of product marketing. He says marketing of the A380-800F rests on a basic premise: "Quite simply, we are able to tell potential customers that the A380-800F will carry more cargo further at lower cost than anything else on the market." This includes specialist aircraft such as the A300-600ST Beluga and Antonov An-124, although the claim is targeted more specifically at the 747-400F in both its current and future forms.

While it was launched together with the passenger version, service entry of the freighter is set for 2008, two years later than the A380-800. This gives more time for development of the reinforced structure of the -800F, which ultimately will provide the basis for longer range versions of the passenger aircraft.

Unique flexibility

Airbus offers the A380-800F in basic and option variants. Both are powered either by General Electric-Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200s or Rolls-Royce Trent 900s, generating 76,500lb (340kN) of thrust. The basic aircraft comes with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 590t and a lifting capacity of 150t, the optional version weighing in at 150t, but capable of lifting a 158t payload. Range of both will be 10,415km (5,620nm).

A unique feature of the -800F is its three full-length cargo decks which, although offering what Airbus describes as "unparalleled flexibility", have given it some design headaches with regard to loading and unloading of cargo on the upper deck. These have been solved, says Lenormand: "Height is not a showstopper. We have two loader manufacturers ready to build equipment for the upper deck, and we're still eight years away from entry into service."

A typical loading arrangement would be with 25 pallets on the upper deck, 33 on the mid-deck, and 13 on the lower deck, providing a claimed 37% more capacity than the 747-400F, with a total volume of 1,134m³ (40,050ft³), a 25% increase. The cargo will be loaded through a 2.7m (8.8ft) wide upper deck door located forward of the wing and a 4.3m wide main deck door, which is placed behind the wing and - unlike that of the 747-400F says Airbus - is large enough to accommodate 6.1m wide standard containers. The main deck "can be serviced by current loaders," says Lenormand, while the upper deck loader will be compatible with main deck loading.

The A380-800F will not have a 747-style nose cargo door because it "is of limited value, and is both costly and heavy," says Lenormand. He adds that the 747 door is only useable for the seven front pallets, and outsized loads require a specific nose loader. A further disadvantage is the need for "at least 22.6m extra space in front of the aircraft to accommodate the loader, taking valuable ramp area. Simulations have shown the A380-800F capable of being turned around in 135min against 150min for the 747-400F, partly because both main and upper decks can be loaded simultaneously."

In terms of cash operating cost (COC), Airbus claimed victory for the A380-800F over the 747X Stretch Freighter even before the latter was shelved. Over a 11,100km range, for example, Airbus says the -800F will have a COC of 12 cents per tonne of net payload per nautical mile against what would have been around 15 cents for the Boeing aircraft, a reduction of 24%. Against the 747-400F this rises to 50%, says Airbus. "It's the advantage of scale," says Lenormand, "and the fact that the A380 is a brand new aircraft with new engines, more efficient aerodynamics and systems."

Despite overwhelming interest in the freighter variant of its proposed 747X Stretch family, Boeing opted to refocus its product development dollars on the Sonic Cruiser project in March 2001. Far from abandoning the 747, however, the company has subsequently launched a new Longer Range 747-400F derivative and is actively canvassing operators on another growth variant with a maximum take-off weight up to 436t.

Growing demand

Boeing sees good reason for pursuing its large freighter development strategy. It predicts the world jet freighter fleet will grow from its present size of around 1,680 aircraft to 3,200 or so over the next 20 years. Of this, the large aircraft component (DC-10-30 size and above) is expected to grow from around 320 to 890 over the same period. The 747, having been designed from the outset as a freighter, is enjoying its best days in the cargo world and is ripe for development, says Boeing. There are 225 747Fs now operating around the world, representing around 50% of the industry's total uplift capacity "and by the time the A380-800F enters service there will be around 300 in service," says Jim Edgar, Boeing regional cargo marketing director.

This trend is reflected in Boeing's 747 output. Some 45% of this year's production will be freighters, and in 2002 the -400F is set to account for 65% of the tally. Some of these latter aircraft will be the new Longer Range model launched in late April with a firm order for five from International Lease Finance. At least two of the five are destined for service with Air France, while Boeing has also taken orders for another two from an unidentified customer. The Longer Range -400F will have the same 413t MTOW as the passenger variant launched last year with an order for six from Qantas. The heavier weight provides either an extra 6,800kg of payload, or just as importantly to some operators, an extra 925km range. This is enough to eliminate fuelling stops on some of the more heavily travelled freight routes between North America, Asia and Europe. Expensive landings at places like Anchorage, Tokyo and Dubai could therefore be avoided, says Boeing.





Longer Range 747-400F

Max structural payload



Max take-off weight



Max landing weight



Max zero fuel weight



Operating empty weight



Fuel capacity

203,515 litres

203,515 litres

Design range (structural payload MTOW)



Cruise speed



Takeoff field length sea level, (30°C (86°F), MTOW)



With deliveries of the Longer Range freighters due to begin at the end of 2002, Boeing is offering customers four new options based on the more capable 747. The first is an improved variant of the 412,770kg freighter with the trailing-edge wedge, revised flaps and wingtip treatments already studied and, in some cases, flight tested as part of Boeing's earlier and more ambitious Next Generation 747 plan.

New technology turbofans

The second is a more dramatic increase in MTOW to around 436t, and the adoption of new technology turbofans in the 65,000lb-thrust range and with an 8:1 bypass ratio. As neither current technology 747-400 engines, nor the GP7000 and Trent 600s powerplants planned for the axed 747X will do the job, the higher gross weight offering is totally dependent on the engine makers' willingness to support the project. Boeing 747 programmes vice president Walt Orlowski says: "We are talking to them [the engine makers], and none of us have made any commitments so far." The availability of more powerful engines also re-opens the possibility of a "simple" stretch with plug inserts fore and aft.

Mix and match

Option three is a "between place" derivative that mixes and matches the options offered in study areas one and two. The fourth option is a list of potential retrofit items from the -400XF that could be introduced into the current -400 fleet. "We're looking at all the things that could make sense from a retrofit perspective. There are a lot of future improvements available for the 747 family, both passenger and freighter versions, and we are interested in hearing what the requirement is," says Orlowski.

The availability of new engines is the long pole in the tent for the more ambitious aspects of the 747F plan. "The biggest cost would be a new engine, followed secondly by a possible stretch. Third would be any changes we would to make to the load distribution on the wing, and any added weight to compensate for changes such as winglets," he adds. Given a positive reaction to the growth plan, from both operators and engine makers, Orlowski says the first high gross weight 747F could be available as early as the first quarter of 2005. Major structural changes would also be required to the main undercarriage and its bay design to enable the aircraft to operate at the higher weights.

The A380-800F and Longer Range 747-400F developments show that, for once, Airbus and Boeing appear to agree on one area of the market. Both see the growing need for large, capable freighters, and both contend that cargo traffic will be concentrated on trunk routes, rather than being 'fragmented' or 'segmented' like parts of the passenger market. Now it is up to the market to see which solution it prefers.

Source: Flight International