Airbus had assumed Boeing would offer a 777X freighter derivative to counter the A350F, but believes its own twinjet cargo variant will have the edge over its rival.
The A350F was unveiled in mid-2021 and secured its first customers in November last year. Airbus had recorded firm orders for 18 A350Fs from three customers – Air Lease, Singapore Airlines and CMA CGM – plus commitments from Etihad Airways and Air France, taking the total to 29.
Qatar Airways, fresh from its legal dispute with Airbus over A350s, provided the initial momentum for Boeing’s response with an order for 34 firm and 16 optioned 777-8 freighters, and the US airframer subsequently obtained a tentative agreement for five with Ethiopian Airlines.
Airbus head of freighter marketing Crawford Hamilton says Boeing was unlikely to give its rival much of a head start in this latest competitive arena.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a monopoly. They own this market and they’re going to defend it,” he says. “We definitely had anticipated that they would and, no doubt, they’ll throw everything and the kitchen sink at it.
“But what we have to do is listen to our customers and build the aircraft that the customers want and concentrate on that. That’s why we’ve been talking to them so much over the last few years.”
Although Airbus had referred to a freighter variant when the A350 XWB was launched in 2006, Hamilton says work “in earnest” started about seven or eight years ago.
“Several things were happening at the same time,” he says.
Customers had inquired as to whether Airbus had considered a freighter variant, to challenge Boeing’s dominance, while the 747-400ERF and -400F – first delivered respectively in 2002 and 1993 – were ageing. The final 747 freighter is set to be handed over this year.
He says Airbus took customer feedback, incorporated it into the A350F design, then returned to those customers to ask whether the aircraft is suitable for their needs.
By focusing on the operators’ requirements, he says, the aircraft will “sell for its own attributes”, regardless of Boeing’s activity.
Hamilton argues that there are particular factors which provide Airbus with an opportunity to establish a strong presence in the cargo sector.
While the pandemic triggered demand for cargo capacity during a scarcity of hold freight capacity in passenger aircraft, he believes the steady rise of e-commerce was apparent even before the crisis, and that there is a need for more capacity which is independent of the upheaval.
The prospects for the A350F, he says, are based on “solid replacement”. Of the demand for 2,440 freighters Airbus foresees over the next two decades, 880 will be new-build, and 540 freighters are in the ‘large’ category with payload capabilities over 80t.
Airbus is involved in freighter conversion, through its EFW venture, but Hamilton says the A350F is aimed at the new-build market “where there’s a lot of customers”.
Larger freighter operators often seek the additional capabilities – such as floor loading – that come with a new-build dedicated design, rather than a conversion, he says.
“They tend to buy new to get utilisation out of it, integration into the fleet and a better product,” he adds. “They can operate it more intensively.”
Customers do not want to be “locked into something” with a freighter, and are demanding flexibility – in loading, in range, and in economics – as well as robustness and reliability.
Airbus is pitching the A350F as a 747-400F replacement, offering the same volume but up to 40% lower fuel-burn on other aircraft in the sector. The airframer claims a 20% improvement on the 777F.
Both Boeing and Airbus are preparing freighter designs that comply with ICAO regulations in 2027, but Hamilton insists that the A350F is the “only true new-generation freighter”, rather than a derivative of an older type, with a composite structure that will lighten the airframe and benefit operating economics – particularly over the longer sectors.
He highlights the calibre of the initial customers which Airbus has secured for the A350F, including the endorsement from CMA CGM and the launch order from US lessor Air Lease – adding that Air Lease chief Steve Udvar-Hazy “doesn’t invest in bad things”.
Hamilton says that all current 747 freighter customers are potential candidates for the A350F, and is optimistic over the twinjet’s prospects. Customers are not buying freighters as a temporary response to the pandemic, he says. “This is a long-term investment.”