A380 Freighter Conversion, Reasonable or Not?
Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc. - May 2020
As an aviation consultant I am frequently asked by would-be entrepreneurs if they have just had the original idea of converting an A380 passenger airliner to cargo. They all seem to have variations of the same basic introductory comment, “Airbus 380s are being grounded all over the world since passenger traffic is down and it seems to be an overlooked investment opportunity. We buy one, convert it to cargo, and with all that volume we can lower our freight hauling rates and beat down all the other cargo carriers.”
Over the decades of its existence aviation has sucked in billions of dollars in investment money from excited investors. The ROI (Return on Investment) on most of them has been heartbreak and grossly diminished wealth.
When the A380 was first delivered to Singapore Airlines in 2007 it affirmed Airbus’ position on the question of passenger desires. Did passengers want to fly in large groups, “hub to hub”, or did they want to fly in smaller planes carrying smaller numbers of passengers, “point to point”?
In the intervening years it became apparent that Boeing temporarily won that mega-bet with their smaller airplanes; flying point to point. However, as a result of Boeing’s corporate arrogance with the 737 MAX, and the all-devouring onset of Covid-19, Airbus has usurped Boeing in aircraft sales. But the final count of that competition could be in the area of Airbus sold two airplanes and Boeing didn’t sell any. No question about it, things are really bad in this industry.
Successful air carriers using the A380 embraced the hub to hub concept with Emirates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, being paramount. They shrewdly connected the sub-continent with Europe and the United States with stops in Dubai. In a few short years they turned the city and Emirate of Dubai, and their international airport with its world-famous Duty-Free Shop, into a business scheme often referred to as “Dubai Incorporated”. Low priced tickets connecting through Dubai often included a few days stay in a Dubai hotel. “Dubai Incorporated” correctly surmised that lay-over passengers would spend enough money in the tax-free Emirate to more than make up for the lower priced tickets. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi was pursuing a similar strategy with their home-based airline, Etihad Airways. This past January my neighbor, here on Amelia Island, FL took a 7-day trip to the United Arab Emirates, including 5 nights in a hotel with breakfast included for a total cost of $750.00. You very nearly can’t stay home for that price. However, that was before the Covid-19 crash decimated economies around the world.
Long before the world even heard of Covid-19 it was obvious that the A380 was not the bell-ringing success that Airbus had anticipated. Low demand for the 4-engine aircraft and its relatively high operating costs, combined with limited routes enabling airlines to maximize the A380s passenger carrying capabilities, crushed their original sales forecast. Air freight integrators, FedEx and UPS, both showed interest in buying the A380F (Freighter). “ One of them ordered 10 of them in early 2005 but cancelled the order when production of the freighter version of the aircraft was indefinitely delayed in 2007”. Underlining is by the writer.
The term, indefinitely delayed, makes this writer think that perhaps Airbus, after much engineering soul-searching, decided that the factory freighter version did not make economic sense and the indefinite delay offered them the only way out.
Let’s first look at the A380, Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), being offered by Lufthansa for temporary passenger to freighter conversion. It’s pretty basic:
Floor loading: Passenger floors are not stressed to carry the heavier loads required for cargo floors. Lufthansa’s response to that limitation is to palletize the floor to spread the load over a wider footprint. It’s not clear from the information presented if the palletized floor contains floor roller installations to make it easier to roll cargo down the aircraft floor.
The cargo, floor roller system was originally designed during the Korean War
by my brother, Sg. Michael J. Gordon, for which, he was awarded the Bronze Star. It was originally called The Gordon Quick Release System.
Fire suppression system: Not installed in the passenger section of airliners. Would it have to be retrofitted for quick change removal and replacement.
Passenger oxygen system: Installed at every seat. Does this system have to be removed to prevent immediate pure oxygen from feeding an onboard fire throughout the entire aircraft?
“All these criteria, and some more, must be taken into account and incorporated into the technical documentation by suitably qualified engineers and approved.”
Seat removal: Economy seats can be readily removed but Business Class and First-Class seats are intricate, electro/mechanical installations that require a great deal of time to remove and replace. Each removal and replacement increases wear and tear on the systems introducing more and more opportunities for failures to occur, some of which, will be difficult for aircraft engineer/mechanics to locate and repair.
Once the above functions have been performed, and you have the temporary STC, you have an A380 with very limited cargo carrying capability for the following reasons:
No cargo doors: All cargo must be loaded through the passenger doors. This means palleted cargo cannot be loaded. It must be loaded by hand, box by box. Palleting, if required, must be accomplished once the cargo is on board. Loading like this requires a great deal of manual time; expensive man hours and aircraft time on the ground. This costly, time consuming process is likely why UPS has concentrated on developing a more readily available conversion in the 747 cargo fleet instead of waiting for Airbus. By 2022 UPS will have 41 Boeing 747s; including 13 747-Fs and 28 747-8Fs.
Conveyor belts: Lack of cargo conveyer belts long enough to meet the emergency exit door which provides the only access from the upper deck other than the forward and aft stairs. Cargo boxes would have to be sent up and down the interior stairs, one by one, by hand.
Cargo doors could theoretically be installed on the aircraft, but individual cargo doors would be required on both the main and upper decks. That would increase the basic weight of the airplane since the structure around cargo doors must be strengthened. The cargo doors could not be installed one above the other since it would weaken the fuselage in that particular area in spite of the structural enhancement involved.
Cargo doors would mean added weight to the basic empty weight of the airplane. That reduces the useful load an aircraft can carry due to the overall limitation of its Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTO). MTO is carved in stone and very expensive to increase if it’s even technically possible. An excellent article on this topic was written by Dan Wang, “Too Fat to Fly: Why There’s No Cargo Version of the Airbus A380.”
In his article Dan Wang states that, “air freight is measured in two ways: cube and weight. Cube refers to the volume of the freight. A plane is said to “cube out” when it’s fully filled up but doesn’t approach its weight capacity. The hypothetical freighter equivalent of the A380 would get too heavy as (before) it approaches its volume limit.
An A380-F would be too fat to fly at a profit: The plane would hit the maximum payload (a constraint of weight) before its maximum cubic space (a constraint of volume). Its design can’t support the maximum payload required to generate a profit.”
As a result of Covid-19, “airline revenues have plummeted as travel restrictions and fear of infection has put people off the prospect of spending hours with others in enclosed spaces.” Once again, in this writer’s opinion an airliner, with its sophisticated and complex environment system, might be one of the safest environments in which we could find ourselves.
With social distancing seating being mandated by public demand and the regulatory authorities, let’s not compete with the surviving airlines as they scramble for the only profitable business remaining for them; air cargo. Most modern airlines have loads of cargo room in their bellies. Some of them might even be able to fly cargo in the belly with no passengers on board and still, at least, break even. Perhaps even make a buck.
Converting an A380 to cargo, or just about anything other than scrap aluminum, is a bad idea Wilbur. Stick to your day job.
1 Personal conversation with Mrs. Joan “Susie” Culp. Thursday May 14, 2020.
2 Email response from a cargo carrier’s Public Relations Manager. Friday May 15, 2020.
5 Email response from UPS Public Relations Manager, Jim Mayer. Friday May 15, 2020.