March 11, 2024

Airbus’ distinctive new airline ready to haul whale-size loads


Airbus Beluga Transport, a new cargo airline established by the European aircraft manufacturer to carry oversize shipments, is open for business and prospecting for customers.

An ultralarge BelugaST freighter will arrive Monday afternoon at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida with an Airbus-built Eutelsat E36D satellite, which will be trucked to the Kennedy Space Center for launch into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this month.

The delivery marks the inaugural North American flight of Airbus Beluga Transport following the U.S. Department of Transportation’s grant in January of a foreign carrier permit allowing the airline to conduct commercial charter service to, from or within the United States.

But this is no ordinary freighter aircraft. It resembles a beluga whale, a species with a distinctive white color and a prominent forehead found in Arctic coastal waters. The design is based on an A300 widebody jet that Airbus (CXE: AIR) adapted by lowering the cockpit and adding a bulbous fuselage shell to accommodate large aircraft sections so they could be moved from factories to assembly plants in Europe by its in-house airline.

Airbus two years ago decided to replace the BelugaST with a larger XL version and establish a stand-alone airline with its own operating certificate and pilots who could offer dedicated transport services to external shippers with unique loads that don’t easily fit in traditional cargo jets. After occasionally renting out the supersize freighter on a trial basis, Airbus is now entering an airfreight niche that management says is underserved.

With the largest cross section of any transport aircraft in the world — 50% higher and 10% wider than market alternatives such as the Antonov An-124 or Boeing 747-8 — the Beluga is well suited for nonstandard shipments.

“We strongly believe there is a big need in the market. There is not enough capacity,” Benoît Lemonnier, managing director of Airbus Beluga Transport (AiBT), said Friday in a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Toulouse, France. “Even if we cannot address the whole market due to the weight limitations, we are totally convinced that there is an opportunity to fill the capacity of these four aircraft over time.”

Airbus test loads a helicopter on a BelugaST transporter. (Photo: Airbus)

The Airbus subsidiary is currently allowed to fly in Europe, the U.S. and certain countries that don’t require their own certifications.

AiBT has four Beluga STs. Three are in service and a fourth is held as a spare. The fifth aircraft, phased out of Airbus’ in-house airline, has been grounded since the beginning of COVID and won’t be reactivated unless there is enough business.

A key factor in AiBT’s favor is the drop in heavy-lift capacity resulting from Western sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which cut off Russian carrier Volga-Dnepr and its fleet of Antonov An-124 and Ilyushin-76 mega freighters from a large portion of the global market. 

Other aircraft competitors to the Beluga include military cargo jets such as the U.S.-built C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster, which in some circumstances are used for commercial missions.

AiBT still has a long way to go building up a client base because Airbus and other parties must qualify each type of unique load for carriage by the Beluga ST.

So far, the catalog of products eligible for transport includes certain types of satellites housed in special containers and some Airbus helicopters. Lemonnier told FreightWaves that AiBT is working with Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft for certification to carry their large helicopters, such as the Chinook. The airline expects to gain approval soon to carry aircraft engines, which require the development of jigs to safely hold them in place. Other potential business opportunities could come from the oil and gas industry, unmanned aerial vehicles and small electric aircraft, and humanitarian aid organizations.

In addition to meeting customers’ requirements for safe carriage of sensitive equipment, Airbus’ aircraft design office must approve different types of payloads to make sure lashing systems and other systems will hold large shipments in place.

Technicians load a container holding a Eutelstat satellite onto an Airbus Beluga Transport freighter for delivery to Florida. (Photo: Airbus)

The Beluga’s massive girth is an advantage for helicopter shippers because the tail rotor, and sometimes the main rotor, don’t need to be dismantled and reassembled on arrival, which can save many days of work, said Lemonnier. 

While the Beluga ST can accommodate oversize loads, it’s not as versatile as the Antonov or 747 because it can’t carry as much weight and needs special loading equipment. With a maximum payload of 44 tons, it isn’t able, for example, to transport tanks, generators or other heavy industrial machinery, which can easily be rolled onto other freighters with ramps.

The loader is basically scaffolding with a built-in rail system that allows the plane to be loaded from a high point, above the cockpit. The platform can be assembled and taken apart in one day, put in containers, and transported to another point. And the loading process is cumbersome. It takes several hours to position the platform in front of the aircraft, connect it with the aircraft handling system and load/unload shipments, with the assistance of a crane.

Shipments up to 22 tons allow the Beluga to carry an onboard loader, which speeds up loading and off loading. The trade-off is that the superfreighter can carry one helicopter instead of two if an onboard loader is part of the payload. AiBT hopes to get the portable system certified this summer.

Meanwhile, Lemonnier said Airbus is testing an alternative solution with lifting capability in the platform.

“We need to have a portfolio of solutions adapted to the need,” the airline chief said. “If it’s an urgent mission, we will use an onboard cargo loader. If we need to densify and fill the Beluga, we will use a fixed platform. And if it’s someplace we go to regularly, we could leave the platform permanently assembled.”

AiBT opted to use Orlando Sanford airport instead of flying directly to Cape Canaveral because of the convenient parking and lack of time constraints so that the unloading won’t be rushed, said Lemonnier. Orlando Sanford is a former U.S. naval air station and has a long runway.

Preparation and pilot training

Ramping up operations has been a major undertaking that has taken longer than expected. Before European and U.S. authorities signed off on operating certificates, AiBT had to write and submit voluminous operating manuals demonstrating the procedures in place for flight safety, flight operations, ground operations, technical controls and crew training. And the fleet registration also had to be transferred from the Airbus transport organization to AiBT.

To date, AiBT has hired about 60 people for various roles and operates from a base at Francazal airport near Toulouse, according to the company. It started with short-haul flights within Europe late last year under contract with Airbus to test internal procedures and train everyone, especially since planning and executing several flights per week takes more capability than operating random flights.

AiBT last May hired Olivier Schneider, a former captain and instructor with Air France Group who headed flight operations at one of the group’s regional airline subsidiaries, to head its flight operations. 

AiBT also has extra challenges building up its pool of pilots because flying the BelugaST is different from many other freighter aircraft. The independent airline is borrowing a dozen crew members from Airbus’ internal fleet for up to three years while it strives to hire about 36 permanent aviators and gets them type-rated. Lemonnier said AiBT is recruiting pilots experienced in steering conventional aircraft versus modern aircraft with fly-by-wire controls in which electronic signals are sent by computer from the flight control system to the elevators, rudders and ailerons instead of being controlled by mechanical means.

Airbus Belgua Transport stops for fuel Newfoundland, Canada, on its way to Orlando.

“We are looking for pilots of 747 or A300 or even sometimes 737 who like to feel the wheel,” said Lemmonier. The A300/A310 family shares the same cockpit as the Beluga, but the training path to become a first officer and then be promoted to captain is extensive.

One notable difference, according to an Airbus blog post, is that crews will have to fly several legs to reach long-haul destinations. The Beluga fleet was built for Airbus’ European network, where flight sectors are about four hours maximum. Meanwhile, freighter pilots are used to flying between continents in eight to 13 hours without interruption. But a Beluga trip from Europe to Singapore, for example, will require four stops and take two days. The freighter arriving on Monday in Orlando made stops at Terceira Island in the Atlantic, stopped at St. Johns International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada.

Pilots will also need to fly some missions at 20,000 feet and Mach 0.7 speed, versus the typical cruising altitude of 35,000 feet and Mach 0.8 of traditional freighters. That’s because certain payloads, especially helicopters, aren’t usually certified for exposure to altitudes of more than 20,000 feet and the Beluga’s cargo hold isn’t pressurized. The AiBT fleet can cruise at higher altitudes when carrying a space satellite since spacecraft are built to operate in the vacuum of space. At lower altitudes, pilots will experience different weather conditions than they would encounter higher up.

As a startup airline with limited business, AiBT pays pilots a differential to make up for reduced flight hours.

Planned upgrades for the BelugaST fleet include a new flight management system with a global navigation database, an onboard heater to protect sensitive cargo from rapid temperature changes and related condensation during ascent and descent, and a Class-E fire suppression system for the cargo hold that will increase the ability to carry items such as lithium ion batteries. Installation of the fire suppression system will be done by the end of the year, Airbus spokesperson Katharina Wambach said.

(Correction: Managing Director Benoit Lemonnier’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.)

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

Twitter: @ericreports / LinkedIn: Eric Kulisch / [email protected]

Airbus markets specialized Beluga superfreighter to outsiders


Source link

In this article:
Share on social media: