Airbus is poised to begin taking orders for a freighter version of its A350 widebody as soon as next month, in a challenge to Boeing’s dominance in the market for dedicated cargo aircraft.
The European planemaker has been speaking to more than a dozen potential customers and will seek board authorization to market the new plane in the coming weeks, provided it can line up enough commitments, according to people familiar with the matter. The program could officially launch by year-end, said the people, who sought anonymity discussing confidential matters.
Going after a segment where Boeing has long held sway would mark a major strategic push for Airbus. Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury told Bloomberg News in April that he’s keen to challenge his U.S. rival and that the A350, a modern, lightweight plane with carbon-fiber wings and hull, would be “a strong candidate” for a freighter.
The cargo version would be based on a modified A350-900 and may be slightly longer than the passenger version, according to the people. It would take several years to secure regulatory approvals and enter service.
An Airbus spokesman said that the company is always discussing new products with its customers and “not all studies see the light of day.”
Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, has established a lead over Boeing in the market for narrowbody passenger aircraft, but has long lagged behind in bigger, more expensive twin-aisles. Boeing has built on its strength in larger planes with freighter versions of its 777, 767 and outgoing 747 models.
While most dedicated freighters are older passenger jets converted for cargo use, a handful of major carriers like United Parcel Service and FedEx buy new ones for their fleets.
Airbus has had little success with earlier attempts to shake Boeing’s hold. A freighter version of the smaller A330, which entered service in 2010, has garnered just 38 sales. An attempt to set up a freighter program with the A380 superjumbo collapsed during the same era amid a lack of demand.
The A350 would face the same hurdles as it targets the larger end of the segment, likely going up against Boeing’s 777 or its successor, the 777x, should Boeing decide to move forward with a cargo version. For Airbus, the launch timetable is dependent on securing several customers.
The company is focusing its efforts on the U.S., and Airbus commercial chief Christian Scherer has met with FedEx Chairman Fred Smith to pitch the plane, the people said. The company is also pursuing UPS. Both companies declined to comment.
Other potential customers include Qatar Airways, which has said it is weighing a potential order of at least 30 freighters from either Airbus or Boeing. In recent weeks, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker has escalated a dispute with Airbus over issues under the surface of the paint on A350s. The outspoken executive has publicly excoriated plane makers in the past while pressing them for concessions over aircraft.
Qatar Airways declined to comment.
Other obvious targets are Deutsche Lufthansa, which has a dedicated cargo unit, and Singapore Airlines, which has 55 A350s in its fleet.
The A350, Airbus’ most advanced twin-aisle, has been hurt by a collapse in demand for bigger jets caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While sales of cargo-only planes have been robust throughout the pandemic, long-distance travel is expected to take years to recover.
There’s some concern that the current popularity of dedicated cargo jets will subside after air travel returns, because more capacity will be available for goods carried in the bellies of passenger jetliners. There are also hundreds of aircraft that have been retired from passenger use during the pandemic that can be converted into freighters.
Airbus is betting that the A350’s fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions profile will make it an attractive choice for enough customers to make the program worthwhile. The company may also be seeking to capitalize on Boeing’s production issues with the 777x, which could delay the planned freighter version and allow Airbus to launch its model first.