Airbus has developed its own transportation system to airlift the large, pre-assembled sections of its aircraft from the company’s industrial locations around Europe to the final assembly lines in Toulouse, France and Hamburg, Germany.
Managed by the Airbus Transport International (ATI) subsidiary, this service is performed by specially modified versions of Airbus’ own A300 and A330 airliners, playing a key role in keeping the company’s production and assembly network operating at full capacity.
Since 1995, such airlift duties have been carried out by A300-600ST Super Transporters – converted A300-600 airframes – which are nicknamed the “Beluga ST.” The Beluga STs have a bulbous main-deck cargo cabin which enables the loading of complete fuselage sections and wings. A total of five Super Transporters were put into service, each capable of carrying a 47-metric-tonne (103,616 lb.) payload over a range of 900 nautical miles (1,667 km.).
In 2020, Airbus began phasing in a fleet of six new-generation BelugaXL versions – derived from the larger A330, which will operate in parallel with the in-service A300-600STs before replacing them completely.
The BelugaXL can transport two wings of an A350 XWB jetliner in its cargo bay (while the BelugaST can only accommodate one). With a maximum payload of 51 tonnes, the BelugaXL has a range of 2,200 nautical miles (4,000 km).
The A380’s size means its fuselage and wing sections are shipped via a surface transportation network that includes specially-commissioned roll-on roll-off ships to carry these sections from production sites in France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom to the French city of Bordeaux. From there, sections are transported by barge along the Garonne River to the Toulouse final assembly line.
As for other Airbus aircraft programmes, production of the A380 takes place in different sites across Europe. Each produces completely equipped sections, which are transported to the final assembly line. Most A380 sections are transported to Toulouse by sea, river and road. A number of smaller components, such as the vertical fin produced in Stade or the nose section produced in Meaulte, France, are carried in Airbus’ Beluga fleet.
All large A380 sections are transported by truck from inland production sites to the nearest river or sea port. Wings, for example, travel by barge along the River Dee from Broughton in North Wales to the Dee estuary, where they are loaded onto a large capacity roll-on/roll-off vessel. The craft is used to move aircraft sections by sea to the French port of Pauillac, near Bordeaux.
Here, the components are transferred to specially-designed barges, which carry them on the penultimate part of their 95 km. voyage up Garonne River from Pauillac to Langon. Four river journeys are required to transport fuselage sections and the horizontal tail plane of one airliner. In Langon, aircraft sections are transferred to outsized-load trucks to complete their journey to Toulouse by road.
For the A320 Family of jetliners, Airbus expanded its final assembly facilities beyond the original European locations in Toulouse and Hamburg, to sites in two other key world markets – China (at Tianjin) and the United States (in Mobile, Alabama).
These latest assembly locations are supplied via sea-going shipments. For example, the Mobile Express ship carries subassemblies for the single-aisle Family jetliners during a transatlantic voyage from the industrial site in Saint-Nazaire, France to the Manufacturing Facility in Alabama on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The ship, which is a part of Airbus’ fleet of aquatic vessels, transports major A320 Family components that include fuselage sections, wings and pylons, as well as vertical and horizontal stabilisers.