Jesse Cohen has over 35 years of air cargo experience, starting out in freight forwarding and moving on to the airline industry, where he worked in a variety of key commercial management roles at United Cargo, and later, Etihad Cargo and SilkWay West Airlines.
As part of an agreement with Emirates, Airbus announced on February 14 that it would produce an additional 14 A380 airplanes for the airline through 2021, after which it would no longer manufacture the aircraft. Emirates opted to order Airbus A350-900 and A330-900 aircraft to replace the A380s cancelled from the original order. Much has been written about Airbus’ business decision in manufacturing the A380 and the challenge of selling such a large four-engine aircraft, which was designed for high-density passenger markets, especially with the advent in recent years of very efficient long-range two-engine aircraft like the Boeing 787, Boeing 777X and Airbus A350 variants.
Less has been written about the cargo side of the A380. While some might assume that such a large aircraft would naturally offer a bounty of cargo space, this was not the case. In fact, few tears will likely be shed within the air cargo community regarding the Airbus announcement to halt production. While attractive from a passenger standpoint, the A380 had a reputation among both airline cargo staff and cargo customers as being a tough airplane for cargo. And though there were initial marketing plans for an all-cargo version, in the end, Airbus decided on other production priorities for the A380 and did not pursue this idea further.
Why the negative view from the cargo community? The aircraft has a huge seating capacity; in Emirates’ case, between 489 and 615 passengers, depending on route. However, depending on the specific belly configuration of the airline flying it, it has the same or less overall space in the belly as aircraft with far fewer seats. An example is the Boeing 777, which for Emirates ranges from 264 to 366 passengers. On the A380, unless passenger and baggage loads are light, there is no way to accommodate the increased baggage load from more passengers and the same amount of cargo. Given its size, airlines typically schedule A380s into established passenger and cargo markets, replacing more cargo-capable aircraft, such as the Boeing 747-400 or 777-300ER. When this occurs with an A380 schedule, available cargo space on the route can drop 30 percent, 40 percent or more in many cases, displacing long-time and regular cargo customers. With added passenger weight, the aircraft faces more variability and payload restriction potential on ultra-long flights, such as Los Angeles-Dubai, meaning increased probability of cargo offloads.
Emirates notes on its SkyCargo website that its A380 can handle 8,000 kilograms (kg) of cargo with a full passenger load. Most other long-range international aircraft can handle 10,000-20,000 kg, and sometimes even more depending on passenger loads.
Ultimately the airline and market adjust to the lower and less reliable payload in a situation like this, and carriers learn to manage within an envelope of reduced capacity. The trick for the carrier is often finding more small freight that will fit the aircraft in smaller-size airline containers (such as AKE or LD3 containers instead of the more popular PMC pallets) to minimize risk of offload, while also generating higher-yield and good revenue. High passenger load seasons with high bag loads have become particularly challenging. It is always difficult to not be able to accommodate customers’ cargo needs when larger opportunities appear, such as multiple pallet movements, either on a regular or ad hoc basis. Shippers and forwarders have also adjusted and found alternatives to move larger shipments on other carriers; the result is lost revenue and share.
Of course Emirates and other carriers will continue to fly their A380s for many more years, so there is no immediate impact on cargo shippers in regard to the Airbus decision, beyond what we have today. A380s will continue to be a limited option for cargo shippers.
FreightWaves has analyzed statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation carrier filings showing some comparisons of A380 tonnage compared to other aircraft on the same route in the chart below. This highlights the disparity with other aircraft across nearly all A380 operators, and validates the lower average per flight tonnages and payloads achieved by nearly all airlines with the A380 compared to the other commonly used wide-body aircraft.
Moving forward, in the post-A380 age, when airlines are looking at Airbus and Boeing for large passenger seating capacity aircraft, what are the latest fleet options currently out there, and what do they look like for cargo?
The table below helps to answer that question. It compares the A380 passenger and cargo capacity in containers and pallets to other larger capacity Airbus and Boeing wide-bodies. Note that aircraft belly capacity tends to vary somewhat from airline to airline and sometimes within an airline’s fleet, based on whether and how the airline plans to use its lower decks aside from baggage and cargo (i.e. for crew rests, additional lavatories, other non-cargo uses, etc.).
What is clear is that nearly all of these aircraft have comparable cargo capacity to the A380 or more, yet all also have 30 percent, 40 percent or up to 50 percent fewer seats, based on typical seating configuration. That means fewer passengers and baggage on the lower deck to compete with cargo, and that means more reliable belly capacity with all of the potential replacements for the A380. That’s a good news story for air cargo.