The BelugaXL fleet will include a sixth aircraft, with the future of Airbus’ existing Beluga STs now under consideration
As the production of BelugaXL aircraft continues to advance as planned, Airbus has decided to “future proof” the company’s internal transportation network by adding another next-generation airlifter to the overall fleet.
This expansion from the originally-targeted number of five airlifters to a new total of six will ensure the capacity provided by BelugaXLs – highly modified A330 jetliners tailored to carry large airframe components within the Airbus aircraft production network – can accommodate a range of potential future scenarios.
“Years from now, we could see situations such as further rate increases for our jetliners or may encounter one of the airlifters being grounded, which would make this ‘extra’ sixth aircraft an essential part of our transport network,” explained Bertrand George, head of the BelugaXL programme at Airbus.
The no. 1 BelugaXL performed its maiden take-off in July 2018 and is now being used in compatibility and verification tests at locations across Airbus’ European industrial network – including an initial trip during February carrying a set of A350 XWB wings from Bremen, Germany to Toulouse, France. This month, the second transporter was painted at the Toulouse facility.
The BelugaXL will officially enter service later this year, and by 2023, the six aircraft will be fully operational, replacing Airbus’ existing fleet of A300-600ST Super Transporters (also known as Beluga STs). This, however, does not suggest the five Beluga STs’ end, and their future is currently under consideration.
Loyal service from the hard-working Beluga STs
While the BelugaXL programme advances toward certification, Beluga STs continue to perform their airlift duties. “They have delivered the necessary capacity, and in some months, we have flown up to nearly 1,000 hours with the fleet,” said Philippe Sabo, head of the Airbus Transport International subsidiary that operates the five-aircraft fleet.
Reflecting on the decision to increase the number of BelugaXLs, Sabo recalled the similar step that occurred with its predecessor: “The Beluga ST programme went through the same decision-making process, and I am sure we would not have coped without the fifth aircraft – which was added in 2001,” he stated.
With the BelugaXL soon to be operational, the proven Beluga STs are far from being written off. These original oversized cargo transporters could continue flying for another 10 to 20 years, so there are possibilities of a second operational life. “There is some way to go before we know for certain, but the first-generation airlifters might be flying much more widely,” according to Sabo.
He said two scenarios are under initial evaluation. “We know that companies have the need for super transporters…so selling them is an option; we’re also considering offering the other Airbus divisions and external customers an outsized transport service ourselves,” Sabo concluded. “You could say we’re considering ‘releasing the Beluga STs into the wild!’”