Air France-KLM on Monday confirmed it will move ahead with an order for four A350 large freighters, the new aircraft Airbus brought to market late last year to challenge Boeing in the manufacture of cargo jets.
Air France-KLM, has an option for four additional aircraft, said the A350 freighters are needed to meet growing demand for cargo lift. They will be based at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, where Air France-KLM has a 150,000-square-foot global cargo hub. The airline currently operates two Boeing 777 freighters and utilizes the belly capacity of more than 100 widebody passenger aircraft for cargo.
Air France-KLM’s familiarity with the A350 played a big role in its decision. The order comes with full substitution rights to Airbus A350 passenger aircraft, which constitute the new flagship of Air France’s long-haul fleet. The airline currently operates 15 A350s and has another 23 on order.
“This order embodies Air France-KLM’s determination to strengthen its position on the buoyant cargo business,” said CEO Benjamin Smith. “The Airbus A350 passenger version has been instrumental to the improvement of our economic and environmental performance, while proving to be a passenger’s favorite. We are thrilled to be among the launch customers of its freighter version, which will significantly increase our capacity and give us the means to continue to provide the best service to our customers around the world.”
Air France-KLM initially signed a letter of intent with Airbus in December to take the new freighters.
Airbus has secured 29 orders and commitments for the A350 from Singapore Airlines (seven firm), CMA CGM Air Cargo (four tentative), Air Lease Corp. (seven firm), and Etihad Airways (seven tentative).
The only customer for Boeing’s next-generation freighter, the 777-8, is Qatar Airways, which agreed in January to buy 34 of the widebody aircraft while embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with Airbus over alleged surface defects plaguing its large A350 passenger fleet.
Airlines appear to be attracted by the A350F’s mix of fuel and operational efficiency. Compared to legacy Boeing freighters, Airbus says the cargo jet offers 11% more volume and a 20% reduction in fuel use due to composite materials that reduce its weight by 33 tons and Rolls-Royce engines. It has a 120-ton payload capability, with interior volume equal to the 747 freighter and three more pallet positions than the 777. And it will meet new International Civil Aviation Organization CO2 emission standards that go into effect in 2027.
Air cargo traffic increased 6.9% last year and 12% in February, compared to the same pre-pandemic period, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airbus forecasts 2.7% annual volume growth in general cargo, representing about three-quarters of the market, and 4.7% growth for express freight by 2019, while Boeing projects air cargo traffic will double with annual growth of 4.1%, including express shipments.
Airbus has said it will begin to make first deliveries for the A350 freighter in the fourth quarter of 2025.