Airbus is launching its own cargo airline operation to capitalize on rising air freight demand and the ability of its Beluga transporters to carry super-sized loads, the manufacturer said Tuesday. By 2024, the new Airbus Beluga Transport service will use five of the A300-600-based BelugaST widebodies for ad hoc charters carrying large, heavy items for industries including, aerospace, energy, and maritime, as well as conducting military and humanitarian missions.
The European aircraft manufacturer uses the Belugas to transport large airframe sections between its various factories. It has begun the process of replacing the existing BelugaST fleet with six higher-capacity BelugaXL models.
In late December, Airbus Beluga Transport conducted its first charter, flying an unspecified large rotorcraft from Airbus Helicopters’ manufacturing plant at Marignane in the south of France to an undisclosed customer in Kobe, Japan. The aircraft made refueling stops in the Polish capital Warsaw, Novosibirsk in Russia, and Seoul, South Korea.
The Beluga’s 128-foot-long cargo holds can take cargo items up to 23 feet wide and 22 feet high. The ST model carries a payload capacity of 40 metric tons (88,183 pounds), while the XL can carry 44 metric tons (97,001 pounds).
Philippe Sabo, head of Airbus Transport International’s Air Oversize Cargo unit, told a January 25 press briefing that the STs are only halfway through their anticipated useful service lives, having completed 15,000 of 30,000 flight cycles. From 2023, the new freight airline subsidiary could also have access to one of the larger BelugaXLs.
“We’re now getting more requests from freight forwarders and charter brokers to provide an oversized transport solution from different locations,” said business development manager Reza Fazlollah. “There is no need to dismantle items, and less time is taken loading and unloading cargo, and we can take much higher items [than other widebody aircraft].”
This week, Airbus unveiled new hardware that it says will make Beluga operations more cost-effective. They include a multi-purpose pallet that can adjust in length to match the dimensions of the payload in two-meter long modules. It is also now positioning new loading platforms at various airports around the world and can dispatch Belugas with a new onboard loader that it can use to lift loads away from the aircraft’s Toulouse base.
Airbus has designated the following cities as likely hubs for oversized air freight operations: Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Dubai, Doha, Baikonur, Bangui, Liege, Derby, Marseille, Montreal, Cincinnati, Cape Canaveral, Cayenne, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The Beluga can operate on runways of at least 6,561 feet and at airport altitudes of up to 8,500 feet.