Airbus has decided to develop a passenger-to-freighter conversion of the A330 twinjet, after signing an agreement which will see Singapore's ST Aerospace lead the engineering development and Germany's EADS EFW carry out conversions.
The memorandum of understanding was signed at the Singapore Airshow between the three partners, which should see the first converted aircraft enter service in 2016.
The longer, but shorter range A330-300P2F will lead the programme, with the shorter, longer range -200P2F due to follow a year later.
Airbus said that EFW will subsequently lead the overall programme during the industrial phase and undertake "most of the conversions" at its Dresden facility. The deal will see EFW become the European centre for ST Aerospace's maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services.
EADS-EFW chief executive Andreas Sperl declined to reveal the list price for the aircraft, but said the receipt of authority to offer enables "discussions to begin with potential launch customers".
Although Qatar Airways has been extremely vocal in its calls for Airbus to launch the A330P2F programme, Sperl declined to comment on whether the airline was a prime target to be launch customer.
He said that once the programme is up and running, Dresden would be capable of converting 15-18 A330s a year.
The converted aircraft will be offered alongside the new-build A330-200F, which has been slow to find its market niche with orders for just 69 aircraft so far.
"We see a market for 400 new-build aircraft and 900 conversions over the next 20 years," said Airbus president and chief executive Tom Enders. "We forecast that almost all the demand for cargo aircraft comes in this mid-size category."
The airframer's chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, dismissed suggestions that the introduction of the P2F will hurt the prospects for the new-build freighter.
"I don't see that as an issue, I think it's complementary," he said. "With the A300-600F, the conversion helped us with new-build sales."
Although the P2F version will have the same large forward cargo door as the A330-200F, it will tackle the A330's nose-down angle on the ground in a different way, said Sperl.
The -200F has a repositioned nosegear leg accommodated in an external blister fairing to raise the nose and level the cabin floor. The P2F version will retain the passenger aircraft's geometry and incorporate a powered cargo loading system to enable pallets to be moved "uphill" on the main cargo deck.