A funky bow-shaped Airbus Beluga jet lands at airport on a bright day.

The odd-looking super transport aircraft with a bulbous forehead long used by Airbus to ferry aircraft sections between manufacturing and assembly plants is increasingly being made available to commercial customers with outsized freight shipments, company officials said Monday.

An Airbus Beluga ST over the weekend delivered an Airbus-built Hotbird 13G satellite for Eutelsat to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, hours after the twin telecom satellite was successfully launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It was the Beluga’s first visit to the United States in 13 years.

Demand to airlift cargo that is too tall or wide to fit on a traditional freighter is on the rise. There is not enough capacity, especially after Russian airline Volga-Dnepr was effectively put out of business by western sanctions related to the invasion of Ukraine and no longer able to fly its roll-on/roll-off Antonov An-124 aircraft.

Aircraft engine, aerospace, maritime, defense and the oil and gas industries represent the types of customers that are seeking fast, efficient transport to complete large projects.

“We believe there is high interest on the market for the unique volume capacity of the Beluga,” said Benoit Lemonnier, managing director of Airbus Beluga Transport, the new subsidiary and service being offered to freight forwarders and charter brokers, in a briefing for reporters.  “We know that the market is made up of several hundred missions a year and we want to capture a significant part of that.”

Most of the moves executed so far have involved Airbus customers, but executives said they are fielding many inquiries from third parties. Lemonnier said the first mission for a third-party customer will take place later this year.

A huge container housing a telecommunications satellite is offloaded at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Photo: Airbus)

Airbus (CXE: AIR) has delivered four helicopters so far for Helibras, an Airbus subsidiary based in Brazil. In July, a massive Airbus Beluga delivered an ACH 160 helicopter from Marseille, France, to Sao Paulo for final assembly. Bolloré Logistics, a French freight forwarder, managed the end-to-end transport, including loading and unloading supervision of the helicopter on the aircraft, export and import customs procedures and transportation to the assembly site. 

For-hire cargo airline

Airbus Beluga Transport is still in transition as a fully commercial operation. The unit is currently offering two Beluga ST cargo jets for rent. A third one will be available in 2023, and the full fleet of five mega-jumbo freighters will permanently join the fleet in 2024, said Carole Martin, head of Air Transport International, the in-house Airbus airline operating the outsourced Beluga aircraft.

The objective is to establish Airbus Beluga Transport as a stand-alone airline, with its own operating certificate and pilots, in 2023.

Airbus in January announced it was commercializing its in-house fleet of supersized Beluga jets used to support the company’s internal supply chain as they get replaced in phases with a larger aircraft, the Beluga XL. The Beluga XL is based on the A330-200 jet.

The distinctive planes were designed after the beluga whale, which has an oversized forehead, and based on the A300-600 aircraft.

With the largest cross section of any transport aircraft in the world — 50% higher and 10% wider than market alternatives such as the An-124 or 747-8 — the Beluga is well suited for heavy-lift applications.

Airbus officials say the plane’s capabilities reduce, or eliminate, the need to disassemble large types of equipment, saving time and money. 

Logistics experts say that the supply of extra-large freighters for project cargo has decreased since COVID-19 because they still are frequently booked to haul general cargo at a time when passenger airlines are still not flying full schedules and carrying piggyback loads.

Airbus Beluga Transport will also have periodic access to one XL variant beginning next year, officials have said. The Beluga XL has a maximum payload of 48.5 tons, while the ST can carry 44 tons.

A German army helicopter is loaded on an a Beluga super transporter using a specialized platform. (Photo: Airbus)

New loading techniques and equipment are being developed to maximize the BelugaST’s efficiency. The solutions include a multipurpose pallet that acts as a floor in the aircraft, an outboard platform to assist loading and an automated on-board cargo loader for deliveries where a loading/unloading platform is not available at the origin or destination airport. 

Airbus is striving to get the autonomous system certified and expects it to be available by the end of the year, said Martin.

The autonomous outboard platform was tested last month for lifting heavy military cargo. The German armed forces, the system’s first customer, loaded a CH53 medium-lift helicopter onto a Beluga in about one hour. Airbus said the system has a lifting capacity of 38.5 tons and doesn’t require a crane to use. It is now being marketed to international militaries.

Martin said outboard platforms have already been prepositioned in a few strategic locations around the world.

As for the satellite deliveries to Cape Canaveral, Martin said the planes carried an onboard heater to make sure the payload remained within the required temperature and humidity range. The most recent flight departed Toulouse, France, on Thursday and stopped in the Azore Islands; Gander, Newfoundland; Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Orlando, Florida, before making the short hop to Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic Coast. A direct landing at Cape Canaveral was not possible because of the scheduled rocket launch. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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