The Airbus A380 could potentially be an excellent cargo aircraft. It’s big, it flies a long way, and has plenty of onboard space for pallets. Indeed, Airbus was all set to build the A380F (freighter) and saw orders from some cargo giants. But how would it actually be loaded?

How to get goods onboard the A380

Airbus did mull an A380F, which would sport some interesting differences over the passenger type. These included a higher MTOW (an extra 32,000lbs) but a reduction in range of some 2,400NM to around 5,800NM. Airbus said at the time that these two factors could be traded off, with less weight equaling more range, and even proposed an extra-long-range version that would have an additional central fuel tank.

Most interesting, however, was the addition of cargo doors. The early concept of an A380F was to be configured with a main deck cargo door, measuring 11 ft 3 ins by 8 ft 3 ins. This would be located in the aft fuselage, allowing for easy loading into the lower floor from the rear. Given its position, it would be easy for existing infrastructure to adapt to the new type.

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Airbus A380 fuselage

For the upper deck, a second cargo door was proposed, which would have been located on the forward fuselage. Airbus considered a nose-loading door, similar to that seen on the 747, but ditched the idea as it would have required the flight deck to be raised above the top deck. Imagine an A380 with a 747-style ‘hump’ on top – the weight and drag penalties of this design would have been severe.

Still, the A380F looked good on paper. Simulations showed that, thanks to the simultaneous loading made possible thanks to the twin cargo doors, it could be turned around at least 15 minutes faster than the 747.

Despite the positive appearance of the A380F on paper, the plane was never built. Airbus did patent a ‘combi’ version of the A380, which would carry up to 11 pallets (77,000 lb) of cargo and still be able to take 380 passengers on its deck, in addition to 33,000 lb of freight in the belly. This too was never built.

The flaws of an A380 as a P2F conversion

With many airlines retiring their A380s in recent years and planning to move to more fuel-efficient types, could there be a passenger-to-freighter (P2F) market for the A380?

There is one difference between an A380 and every other passenger aircraft; the A380 has a second passenger deck running the length of the plane. While this is fantastic for passengers and selling more seats on routes, the second level is not designed for dense cargo. The floor is not strong enough to hold much more than the people and seats for which it was designed.

It’s because of this flaw that, if you loaded the A380, you would run out of allowed weight before you ran out of physical space. Unless the cargo is very light, then the A380 is not ideal. Given the industry runs on pallets for efficient transport, this is a huge disadvantage for the A380.

Additionally, how do you load cargo on the second passenger level? The passenger Airbus A380 does not have a cargo door on the upper level, nor does it have an opening cargo door on its nose that swings open like the Boeing 747 freighter. Even worse, most airports lack a cargo scissor lift that can go higher than the lower passenger deck. While an extra door could be added, the weight restrictions mean it would do little to help capacity.

Air Canada Cargo IMAX Screen 1

Photo: Air Canada

Lastly, the A380 will take a long time to load up with cargo, and may not be able to carry much more than a Boeing 777-300ER or 747. For some airlines that still have both in service (like Singapore Airlines), there isn’t much reason to bring the A380 back for cargo runs.

So, while a bespoke designed cargo A380 could indeed work (or a passenger variant that has undergone extensive modification), simply using a passenger-configured A380 for cargo shipments is unlikely to be ideal. In 2020, an A380 was sitting in Lufthansa Technik’s hangar being modified for freight, but this was only for temporary cargo movement on the lower deck rather than an overhaul.

Why are airlines interested in cargo?

Cargo has been in focus in recent years for airlines. The COVID-19 pandemic created a global shortage of freight capacity due to the grounding of passenger flights. Nearly 50% of global airfreight is carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft, meaning the heights of the pandemic saw a huge gap in capacity. However, airlines quickly swooped in to fill this demand by deploying their own parked jets on new missions.

Coupled with a surge in supply of freight, from the likes of eCommerce giants, and airlines are expecting the cargo boom to remain and not fade away. Readers might remember the creation of ‘preighters,’ which were regular passenger jets with seats removed to strap cargo to the floor. While those preighters are now back to their full-time job of carrying travelers, orders for new cargo jets and conversions have gone through the roof.

DHL Boeing 777-F N776CK (2)

Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Sadly, the A380 is not one of the aircraft being considered for a P2F program (despite running some missions in 2020). Given its high operating costs and lack of a unique loading design (like the 747F, which can carry larger cargo as well), the four-engined A380 is not a suitable choice for airlines. The A380 has all the hallmarks of a potentially excellent cargo aircraft. While the A380 could be an excellent cargo aircraft for those that operate it, there is one big issue… how do you load cargo onboard?

What do you think? Do you believe that the A380 could be a good cargo aircraft? Let us know in the comments.

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    Guillaume Faury

    Headquarters Location:
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    Key Product Lines:
    Airbus A220, Airbus A320, Airbus A330, Airbus A340, Airbus A350, Airbus A380

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