Airbus has introduced a new out-of-gauge commercial transport service intended to capitalize on the remaining life of its A300-600ST Beluga fleet, as it phased out the type from its main internal logistics operation.
The Airbus Beluga Transport service has already carried out its first work, with an F-GSTC aircraft carrying a heavy helicopter from Marignane, near Marseille, to the Japanese city of Kobe late last year.
This long-haul operation involved technical stops in Warsaw, Novosibirsk and Seoul.
Airbus says the Beluga fleet – which is being replaced by the larger A330-700L BelugaXL – has only reached half of its lifespan, having completed around 15,000 cycles against the upper limit of 30,000 cycles.
The aircraft manufacturer aims to attract civilian or military customers, not only in the aerospace industry, but also in the energy, space, maritime and humanitarian sectors.
Airbus Transport International director, in-house logistics operator Phillippe Sabo said there were “lots of lessons learned” during the Kobe flight that will help the company prepare for its new venture.
Airbus Beluga Transport project manager Clement Beaunis said the Beluga would be a complementary offering to the oversized niche market, which is served by aircraft types such as the Antonov An-124.
Beaunis says that while the An-124 is “very good for heavy payloads”, the Beluga, which has a 40t capacity, can provide a large diameter fuselage to handle tall and wide expeditions, including motors, without having to dismantle them. .
Five Beluga jets have been used by Airbus, and two – registered F-GSTB and F-GSTC – will initially be deployed for the new service.
Once the entire BelugaXL fleet, six aircraft in total, is made available to Airbus for its internal operation, the aircraft manufacturer will establish a new subsidiary airline with its own air operator certificate to take over all old Belugas as they are removed.
Airbus has developed three technical innovations to adapt the Beluga to its new role. Because the aircraft has a rail structure on which custom jigs are loaded, when transporting aircraft sections, the aircraft manufacturer has developed a versatile pallet on which different payloads can be mounted.
Beaunis says some 27 of these 2m paddles have already been produced, enough for the first two Belugas. The top surface is flat, allowing helicopters or vehicles to be raised and lowered, and the pallets have a multitude of anchor points, placed every 20cm, he says, so loaders can “quickly tie down n ‘any payload’.
He adds that these pallets will provide “the flexibility and responsiveness that our customers expect”.
Other innovations relate to the external loading and unloading infrastructure. Airbus has developed an outboard platform – the first of which is available – that can be assembled in a day and installed in strategic locations, to help retrieve or load cargo from the jet.
It has also designed an alternative on-board charger, available from June, which can be taken on board and rigged in around 1 hour. The loader sits above the cockpit and is capable of lifting loads of up to 20 t and 12 m in length.
“Several companies have asked us if the Beluga is available for charter flights,” explains Reza Fazlollahi, director of business development and strategy at Airbus.
He says the company has familiarized itself with new markets, working with freight forwarders and brokers to understand the challenges involved, in order to launch the “tailor-made” service. Customers, he says, are looking for aircraft availability, reliability and cost-effectiveness.
Airbus will initially base the Belugas in Toulouse but, as the new operation develops, will locate and deploy them according to the missions they are required to carry out.
Beaunis says the plane will undergo a number of modifications for the new service, such as the installation of a fire protection system. The aircraft will be able to operate transatlantic services, with extended twin-engine operations of 180 minutes, using fuel stops in places such as the Azores or Canada.