For decades, one of the world’s top aerospace companies has relied on a fleet of enormous planes to quickly deliver large aircraft components between facilities strewn across Europe.
The Beluga — so-named for reasons obvious to anyone who’s visited their nearest aquarium — has the widest interior cross-section of any aircraft in the world, capable of handling cargo up to 22 feet high and more than 23 feet wide.
In order to support an increase in aircraft production, Airbus began rolling out the new, larger Beluga XL in recent years. But the original fleet of five Beluga STs still has plenty of miles in it — at a time when persistent supply chain problems mean that pretty much anything that can move cargo is in high-demand.
Airbus is apparently primed to take advantage. The company announced that all of its Belugas will be shifted into a newly formed subsidiary that would allow companies from all over the world to use the giant cargo planes. The ST, which previously transported the occasional industrial machine or space satellite in addition to Airbus parts, will now exclusively serve as a contract cargo service.
The company plans to outfit the planes with a new flight management system for better navigation, as well as improved equipment and loading techniques, including an automated onboard cargo loader that will be able to move up to 20 tons even at airports currently unable to accommodate the Beluga.
Airbus said the service would likely appeal to other aerospace and defense firms, as well as engine and machinery manufacturers, vehicle makers, the energy sector, and even distributors of supplies for humanitarian missions. Airbus officials told Reuters that the company was approached about using the Belugas even before COVID-19 and its aftermath roiled global supply chains.
Industry observers, meanwhile, noted that the change follows a downturn in larger passenger jets — including Airbus’ own A380 superjumbo.
The cargo service officially launched late last year with the shipment of a complete Airbus helicopter — with only the wings folded back — from France to Japan.