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Airbus launches cargo airline with whale-shaped super transporter

Specialized Beluga freighter that ferries aircraft components will be available for hire

Airbus' funky super freighter mimics characteristics of the beluga whale. (Photo: Airbus)

Airbus said Tuesday it is commercializing its in-house fleet of Beluga supersize jets used to transport large aircraft components between manufacturing sites to offer logistics companies and other organizations airlift for outsized shipments.

The iconic planes are designed in the image of the beluga whale, which has a distinctive bulbous forehead.

The new service — Airbus Beluga Transport — will serve commercial customers with large cargo transport needs in a variety of sectors, including space, energy, military, aeronautic, maritime and humanitarian aid. With the largest interior cross-section of any transport aircraft in the world, including the An-124, the Beluga is well suited for heavy-lift applications. It can accommodate cargo with a width of 23.3 feet and nearly 22 feet high, eliminating the need to disassemble many types of equipment and saving considerable time and money.

The supply of extra-large aircraft able to handle project cargoes — mining equipment, power generators, trucks, satellites and cranes — has increased since COVID-19 because they are being pressed into frequent duty hauling general cargo with airlines having downsized their fleets, which eliminated a large amount of cargo space, industry executives say.

The aircraft manufacturer said it is replacing its five Beluga ST aircraft for internal moves with six new Beluga XLs to support ramped-up airliner production. As the unique jets, which are based on the A300-600 design, are phased out they will be handed over to a newly created subsidiary airline with its own air operator certificate and staff. That process is not expected to be completed until 2024 or 2035.

Airbus Beluga Transport will also have periodic access to one XL variant beginning next year, officials said. The Beluga XL has a maximum payload of 48.5 tons, while the ST can carry 44 tons.

The first contract was executed at the end of 2021 with a delivery from Airbus Helicopters’ manufacturing site in Marignane, France, to Kobe, Japan, for an undisclosed customer. The Beluga super transport stopped to refuel in Warsaw, Poland; Novosibirsk, Russia; and Seoul, Korea.

“The Beluga’s wider cross-section will open up new markets and new logistical possibilities for customers. In the case of loading helicopters — not having to dismantle them first — really is a plus. Similarly, the largest commercial aircraft engines can be accommodated in a fully dressed configuration,” said Phillippe Sabo, the head of Air Oversize Transport in the announcement.

To maximize the BelugaST’s turnaround capability for its targeted international customer base, new loading techniques and equipment are being developed for the operation. The solutions include a multi-purpose pallet that acts as floor in the aircraft, an outboard platform to assist loading and an automated on-board cargo loader for deliveries where a loading/unloading platform is not available at the origin or destination airport. Several outboard platforms that can be moved around in containers as needed will be placed in strategic spots around the world.

“The new airline will be flexible and agile to address the needs of external worldwide markets,” Sabo said. 

Airbus has relied on the Beluga super transporter to carry fuselage sections, wings and tails between manufacturing and assembly plants for its single-aisle A320 family, as well as the A330 and A350 widebody aircraft.

It previously offered ad hoc charters to third parties depending on availability, but Airbus Beluga Transport will now be a full-time contract carrier.

The Antonov An-124 is the closest commercial competitor to the Beluga. It was created to transport unique and oversized cargo for complicated logistics projects, with capacity for 120 to 150 tons. With an internal crane system and two cargo-loading entrances for out-of-gauge shipments, it is self-sufficient when it comes to on/offloading.

Ukraine-based Antonov Airlines operates seven Antonov An-124 freighters, plus one An-225 — the largest cargo plane in the world with a payload capacity of 225 tons. (The An-225 Mriya technically has the largest cross-section of any plane, but is only activated irregularly.) Volga Dnepr has a fleet of 12 An-124s. Maximus Cargo operates one An-124.

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


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]