Airbus is considering a hybrid airframe platform as it works to refine its options to replace the A300-600ST Beluga freighters central to its manufacturing operation.

The airframer is trying to balance a need to maximise capacity against the performance limitations of runways at plants including Broughton and Méaulte, which respectively manufacture wings and cockpits for the A350.

While Airbus is drawing up a strategy, known as Fly 10,000, to optimise its Beluga operation and extend its life, it has been studying a future replacement jet.

Its analysis has determined that the Airbus A330-200's performance can meet the runway demands, and that the aircraft - modified in a similar way to the Beluga - would be large enough to transport A350 wings.

The airframer has also noted that other longer payloads - such as combined A350 and A320 sections - could be accommodated by a modified A330-300, but the type's landing capability is more marginal.

Airbus executive vice-president for programmes Tom Williams says the company will "probably have some kind of hybrid aircraft" to balance the demands. He adds that there is also a debate whether to modify second-hand airframes or build a new aircraft.

He says the Beluga replacement is still under study and that no conclusions have been reached. But he says the airframer "needs to come to a point before the year end".

Such is the demand for the A350, says Williams, that the ramp-up of production might need its own dedicated Beluga operation.

He says the airframer is trying to "reduce its dependency" on the current Beluga fleet, particularly for the A320 family, by taking advantage of road transport, which is less expensive and less prone to being affected by weather.

Airbus is constructing a facility at Broughton specifically to shield the Beluga during loading because, while the aircraft is exposed on the apron, the main visor door acts "like a big sail" in strong winter winds.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news