Boeing’s freighter dominance threatened

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By Scott Hamilton

April 6, 2021, © Leeham News: As if Boeing didn’t have enough challenges these days, its near-exclusive dominance for new-build freighter may be threatened.

Boeing continues to see the 767-300ERF, which proved to be a popular freighter. Photo: FedEx.

Airbus is showing airlines and lessors a freight version of the A350 that is midway in length between the -900 and -1000 passenger versions. If enough orders are lined up—50 is said to be the magic number—Airbus could launch the program as early as this year.

Reuters first reported the effort.

But the Airbus threat isn’t the only one to Boeing’s decades’ long leadership in new-build freighters.

International regulations that take effect in 2027 mean the 777-200LRF and 767-300ERF that Boeing builds today can no longer be produced from 2027. The two aircraft won’t meet new, strict noise and emissions regulations. The engine designs and technology on the 777F date to the 1990s. Those on the 767s date to the 1980s.

The 777-8F was to be Boeing’s next generation freighter. However, program delays, financial pressures, and certification challenges cast doubts whether the -8F will be launched.

A350 Freighter

Airbus is pitching customers a freighter based on a slightly shorter A350-1000. Photo: Airbus.

Airbus has shown an A350F concept to potential customers that outlines a 110 ton payload with a 5,000nm range. The A350F—it doesn’t apparently have a sub-type nomenclature—is a shrink of the A350-1000. The A350F is about 12 feet shorter.

A350F Fuselage Length

  • A350-900: 219 ft
  • A350F: est 230 ft
  • A350-1000: 242 ft

The shrink optimizes the center of gravity loadability and pallet load capabilities.

Airbus isn’t in a hurry to launch the program. But if it does, officials want to with enough development and construction time to assure a 2027 entry-into-service. This is when the ICAO standards take effect. ICAO sets international standards on a whole host of aviation issues.

These standards are in Volume III to Annex 16 of the Chicago Convention (Environmental Protection).

“The Standard will apply to new aircraft type designs from 2020, and to aircraft type designs already in production as of 2023,” ICAO said in 2017 when the standards were adopted. “Those in-production aircraft which by 2028 do not meet the standard will no longer be able to be produced unless their designs are sufficiently modified.”

The A350 meets the standards. The 777-200LRF and 767-300ERF do not.

Airbus has time to launch the program for a 2027 EIS. But officials also want to be sure they build into the schedule plenty of margin. So, the prospect of a launch “is pretty good.” It could come this year, but one insider says Airbus isn’t in a particular rush to do so.

Officials acknowledge the high surplus of A330ceos and 777-300ERs will be feedstock for P2F conversions. A330-200s and A330-300s are active P2F programs. P2F conversions for the -300ER are just beginning. Israel’s IAI and lessor GECAS teamed to convert 15 GECAS airplanes, with an option for 15 more.

Sequoia in Wichita (KS) announced a program, but there are no orders yet. Sequoia has not done P2Fs before.

Acquisition and conversion costs of the A330ceo or 777 Classic will be a fraction of the price of a new-build A350F. Airbus believes the conversions won’t have the freight density a new, purpose-built freighter will. Additionally, although the A330ceo and 777 Classics already in service won’t be subject to ICAO’s 2027 standards. The long-term sustainability of the A350F will be a powerful argument against P2Fs, Airbus believes.

767-300ERF, 777-200LRF fail ICAO

Boeing’s 767-300ERF and 777-200LRF do not meet the ICAO standards.

The Boeing 777-200LRF proved popular and cut into demand for the Boeing 747-8F. ICAO regulations effective in 2027 mean the 767F and 777F won’t comply and production must cease. Photo: Lufthansa.

Boeing declined to answer questions specific to these airplanes, or alternatives.

“We are working within industry standards to meet sustainability goals for aviation and have nothing to share at this time on specific airplanes,” Boeing said in a statement. “We will continue to engage with our current and potential customers on how we can best meet their long-term fleet requirements.”

However, in 2019-2020, Boeing was studying whether to re-engine the 767F with current-generation engines, most likely the GEnx. Fitting the engine under the 767 wings would present challenges. The engine is much larger in diameter and weighs more than the GE CF-6s now on the 767. Aerodynamics would change and Boeing would have to account for this in the flying characteristics.

Coming, as it did, during the MAX grounding and the controversies over the MAX’s larger engines and changed flight characteristics, the idea of doing a “767 MAX” might seem folly.

“It’s a valid question,” a Boeing official acknowledged at the time. “But by the same token, you’re saying that you didn’t learn anything from Max. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned tons in terms of how to do things differently, how to look at things differently, how to be curious about things we weren’t curious about before.”

There is no indication in the market today that Boeing is considering a re-engine 767F as a solution to the 2027 ICAO standards.

EPA climbs on board

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the waning days of the Trump Administration published proposed rules that will implement the ICAO standards.

“We are proud that the EPA took this step to finalize the ICAO CO2 standard for aircraft emissions,” Boeing said in a statement in December. “This is vital for protecting the environment and supporting the sustainable growth of commercial aviation and the United States economy. The EPA’s standard will help tackle climate change and ensure that Boeing products will meet the same requirements as our competitors around the world. The standard is one of the essential pillars of the industry’s strategy to cut net global aviation emissions to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050. Aviation is one of only two industrial sectors that has adopted global CO2 goals, underscoring our steadfast commitment to our communities and the planet.”

Nevertheless, Boeing has a product strategy problem when it comes to freighters.

With the 767F and 777F facing obsolescence and the 777-8F a question mark, can the 787 be adapted to a freighter?

LNA is told doing so is problematic at best. The composite barrel construction of the 787 is said to be a challenge. Early in the program, replacing damaged barrel sections required replacing the entire barrel of the affected area. Airbus, using composite panels for the competing A350, only needs to produce a replacement panel, not an entire barrel. Derided at the time by Boeing, the Airbus approach may prove the smarter one at that. One Tier 1 supplier to both companies told LNA two years ago the panel approach was the preferred one.

Boeing’s star

With the program termination of the 747-8F set for 2022, the 777 is the star of Boeing’s freighter line. There have been 254 orders for the 777-200LRF since the first in 2005 through August 2020. This compares with 233 767Fs from 1993 through August 2020 and 390 for the 747 over the entire life of the program from the first orders in 1966. There have been 138 orders for the 747-8F.

Development of the 777-200LRF cannibalized the 747-8F.

The 747-8F has great volume space, but the economics no longer work, a Boeing insider admits.

“The name of the game going forward is twin engines. Even if you take the metal wing 777 Freighter, you’d have to get to 80% of an 8F load before you can start being in the economics of the 777 metal wing. How often do you operate at 80%?

“That’s why there are a limited number of folks who fly the 747-8F today versus the 777F,” the Boeing official said. “In terms of the numbers, it just makes more sense.”

The 747F, however, has nose-loading capabilities for big cargo items that can’t fit through the side cargo door. The 777, of course, doesn’t have this capability. But nose loading was used by operators only about 5% of the time anyway.

It is technically feasible to put a swing tail on the 777. It’s on the 747 Dreamlifter, it was on the propeller-era Canadair CL-44 and even a couple of DC-6 conversions.

But it’s expensive.

The 777-8F, if developed, faces its own challenges.

The freighter is slightly longer than the 777-8 but shorter than the -9. The fuselage lengths are:

  • 777-300ER:   239.75 ft
  • 777-8P:          224 ft
  • 777-8F:          227.5 ft
  • 777-9:            246.75 ft

Boeing is pondering a cargo version of the 777-9, according to market sources.

On its face, having three fuselage lengths on the 777X assembly line seems unnecessary. Why not simply build a freighter version of the 777-8P?

The choice came down to favoring payload or range, said a former Boeing salesman who was assigned to the X program. A freighter based on the -8P maximized payload. A slight stretch maximized range.

In an era of e-commerce, a freighter tends to max out by volume before weight, favoring range.

Boeing’s dominance

Airbus always was a distant number two to Boeing when it comes to freighters. The A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport was Airbus’ entry into new-build military cargo/transport/tanker airplanes. It’s proven highly capable but having lost the US Air Force competition in Round Three, its market penetration in units sold is limited.

Given the factors above, not only is Boeing’s future hold on the freighter market threated by Airbus. It is also threatened by ICAO.

The new-build freighter market is miniscule compared with the passenger airplane demand. But it’s an important niche. While Airbus and Boeing today battle for the passenger market on a nearly even basis, Boeing has been the clear leader over Airbus in the freighter market. It also was the clear winner over Douglas in the early days of the jet age.

Boeing offered a new-build freighter for every 7-Series airplane except, so far, the 787. The 707, 727, 737 (though not since the 737-200A), 747, 757, 767 and 777 all came in new-build freighters derivatives. (There were 22 737-700Cs built for the US Navy but no commercial customers.)

Douglas offered freighters in the DC-8, DC-9, DC-10 and MD-11—but not the MD-80/90. Lockheed didn’t offer a new-build L-1011F.

Even in the subsequent aftermarket, Boeing airplanes were the reining choice. The DC-8 did very well but few MD-80s were converted. DC-10s and MD-11s had a robust afterlife from passenger airplanes. Only a few L-1011s were converted.

Airbus’ freighters

Airbus developed a new build freighter for the end-of-life A300-600R and the A330-200. The 600RF was purchased mainly by UPS and was a reasonable success. The A330F was a disappointment: Only 41 orders were recorded. (This is the basis of the A330 MRTT refueling tanker, however, with additional sales.)

Airbus didn’t produce any new-build A320/321s and still doesn’t. No new-build A340s were ever produced. Airbus received orders from FedEx, UPS and ILFC for a handful of A380s, but this program was canceled in early development.

The A300-200 and A300-600 saw some conversions. But the A330-200 P2F program, despite a generous feedstock, is still in its early days. The first A321 P2Fs are now entering service.

Airbus killed the development of the A330-900F in post-COVID cost reduction.


2 Comments on “Boeing’s freighter dominance threatened

  1. Hello Scott

    A330MRTT are A330PAX with, if needed front cargo door (P2F combi then)

    Best regards

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