On the company conference call following Wednesday’s third-quarter earnings report, Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) CEO David Calhoun said the company was “currently evaluating” the timing to launch a new freight-hauling version of the company’s 777X twin-aisle passenger aircraft. Airbus announced a freighter version of its A350 twin-aisle passenger plane in July, but it did not name a launch partner or any specifications for the so-called A350F.
The passenger version of Boeing’s 777X is not expected to enter into service until late in 2023. The freighter version likely would not be available until later. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said Thursday, “The freighter market is growing and we want to participate. With changed environmental rules from 2028, there is a large replacement market that we want to participate in from 2025.”
Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and passenger air travel had all but dried up, some carriers removed the seats from their passenger jets and used the planes to haul freight. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said in a June report on air freight pricing that in a normal year about 45% to 50% of all air freight is transported in the bellies of passenger jets. The pandemic removed about three-quarters of this capacity from the market.
As more passenger flights resume, the high prices currently charged for belly cargo will fall and, presumably, so will demand for cargo planes. Belly capacity on transatlantic routes is returning, and a DHL executive said she expects to be back to normal next year.
Neither Boeing nor Airbus has offered a business case for manufacturing new freighters, but Airbus has said it has offered the aircraft to some likely customers. Apparently, Airbus is getting enough positive comments to continue planning for an A350F.
But Airbus has a tough road ahead. Boeing has dominated the freighter market for decades. More than 760 Boeing freighters have been ordered over the years, and 732 had been delivered as of March 2021.
Airbus has not taken a new freighter order in more than six years. Only 38 Airbus freighters were ever ordered and all have been delivered. Airbus has an aftermarket passenger-to-freighter conversion agreement with Elbe Flugzeugwerke (EFW) that has completed eight conversions of the A330-200 and A330-300 passenger jets and has 100 more slots reserved for future conversions.