Airbus CEO Gauillaume Faury remains tight-lipped about whether the company has started work on the development of a freighter version of the A350, though he did confirm Thursday that the European airframer wants to end Boeing’s dominance of the all-cargo aircraft market, a segment in which he admitted Airbus “traditionally has been weak”—particularly with its widebodies.
“We do not like the idea to remain weak in that segment in the future. I think we have the right product to be able to be more aggressive in that market,” Faury said, speaking during Airbus's first-quarter results presentation. He declined to specify which Airbus widebody model he was referring to—the A330, A350, or A380—and also remained vague on the timeframe. “When it comes is not yet defined,” he acknowledged, while stressing he believes it is “not healthy to have only one player exclusively in a segment that is actually very significant and has been resisting well in the pandemic.”
Reuters last month reported that Airbus started gauging customer interest in a potential freighter version of its A350 passenger airliner. The proposed A350-950F would fit between the A350-900 and the larger A350-1000 in size. The development of the A350 derivative for freighter use would cost an estimated $2 to $3 billion, and Airbus would need to secure orders for 50 aircraft before launching the program.
Airbus delivered 125 aircraft in the first quarter—consisting of nine A220s, 105 A320 family aircraft, one A330, and 10 A350s—and the pace of shipments have gradually increased during the period, from 21 aircraft during the traditionally slow month of January, to 32 planes in February, and 72 units to 34 customers in March. Its March performance brought deliveries almost on par with March 2019, when Airbus handed over 74 aircraft to 40 customers, and the first-quarter delivery tally exceeded the 122 handovers in the first three months of 2020. The commercial aircraft delivery performance helped the group to return to profit in the quarter, Faury said, though he warned that the “crisis is not yet over for our industry.” Airbus reported a €362 million ($438 million) profit in the quarter, reversed from a €481 million loss in the year-ago period. Commercial aircraft contributed €7.2 billion to the group revenue of €10.5 billion in the first quarter and the bulk, almost three quarters, of its consolidated operating profit of €0.5 billion.
“The path to recovery will not necessarily be, what we call, linear” owing to the different speeds of national Covid-19 vaccination program and the emergence of new variants, Faury said. He pointed to strong capacity deployment on domestic routes in China, which he said now exceeds pre-crisis levels, and the U.S., where airlines are looking at a strong summer and appear willing “to accelerate deliveries.” But the continuation or strengthening of travel restrictions in many European countries and the recent spike in Covid-19 infections in India “is reminding us of the fragility of the recovery,” he noted.
Regional and domestic travel will lead the recovery and Faury expressed confidence the single-aisle segment will see a full recovery between 2023 and 2025. In the short term, even if the outlook is unpredictable, Airbus will proceed with the planned ramp-up of its A320 family output from 40 to 43 per month in the third quarter and to 45 in the fourth quarter.
For the full year, Airbus is maintaining its delivery outlook and said it expects to ship the same number of commercial aircraft—566—as it delivered last year.