The skies are brightening for the mid-sized freighter contingent of Airbus. Since December its first converted version of the A330, the A330-300P2F, has been in service for DHL, and interest in the A330 among freighter operators like Atlas Air is on the rise, with demand for medium widebody cargo planes rising on the back of rapidly expanding e-commerce volumes.
Airbus now offers three versions of the A330 freighter: the A330-200F production model and conversions of its A330-200 and -300 passenger aircraft. The A330-200P2F programme kicked off last year with the first conversion for Egyptair, which is turning two of its A330-200 passenger models into all-cargo configuration.
The A330 freighter programme had a slow start, with the initial development delayed by issues with the A380 production. The first A330-200F entered service in 2010, just when the global economy went south and dented demand for air freight capacity. Leasing companies like Intrepid Aviation switched their orders to passenger units, where demand was more robust. A year ago, 36 A330-200Fs were in operation, with orders for another six in the pipeline.
Airbus had targeted primarily the express market with the A330 freighter, stressing that it offers more pallet positions and volume than the Boeing 767 cargo aircraft. The larger A330-300P2F can carry 60 tonnes of cargo, with room to accommodate 23 pallets on its main deck, plus eight more and two LD-3 containers on the lower deck. The production freighter can take five more pallets on the main deck, with the same configuration in the belly, for a maximum payload of 70 tonnes.
However, express carriers stayed focused on the 767, and it was combination carriers that opted for the Airbus freighter. With eight units each, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines are the largest operators of the type. In Asia, Hong Kong Airlines and MASkargo are the leading users, with five and four units, respectively.
The arrival of the first A330-300P2F marked a change. It was the first A330 cargo plane fielded by an integrator, and it has been deployed in DHL’s Asia-Pacific network. The company has seven more firm orders to take delivery of, and it holds options for a further 10 units.
The explosive growth of e-commerce not only generates demand for planes like the A330, it has also fuelled a scramble for 767 cargo planes, which are available at lower prices than the A330-200F or its converted sisters.
Atlas Air has been adding 767s to its line-up at a rapid pace to fill a 20-unit agreement with Amazon. “The immediate needs we had could only be met with 767s,” said Bill Flynn, president and CEO of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings.
Atlas has been studying the A330F for some time, Flynn remarked, adding that it is early days with the A330-200P2F. “Ultimately we are interested in the aircraft,” he said.
This is not likely to translate into an order in the near future, though, as questions remain about available conversion slots and the price of the hull, Flynn noted.
Others also have reservations about the cost of A330 feedstock at this point. At the Airline Economics Growth Frontiers conference in Dublin in January, ATSG COO Richard Corrado and GECAS senior vice-president cargo Rich Greener both said that the A330-300P2F will be a viable competitor down the road, but that its residual costs are still too high at the moment. Greener reckons it will be another four or five years before the acquisition cost is at a level that allow large numbers of A330 conversions.
Airbus and its conversion arm EFW intend to run 18-24 slots a year for the A330, the same volume as planned for A320/321 conversions. On February 7, EFW announced the first order for the A321. Luxembourg-based Vallair Solutions signed up for 10 A321-200 conversions, with deliveries scheduled to commence by the end of next year.Carriers who are in a hurry to get hold of A330 freighters might look to Etihad. The Middle Eastern carrier is undergoing a massive restructuring effort in the wake of the departure of its head of cargo as well as its CEO last year and a US$1.87 billion deficit. In the course of this overhaul, Etihad has grounded its five A330-200Fs. According to unconfirmed reports, management intends to sell or lease the planes and replace them with 777-200Fs. Etihad has five 777 cargo planes in its fleet.
By Ian Putzger
Air Freight Correspondent | Toronto