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The last Airbus BelugaXL extra-large transport aircraft has finally entered commercial service, six years after its construction was completed. The last of the six BelugaXLs built has served as a test platform for the BelugaXL program since 2018, joining five sister ships already flying for Airbus Transport International (ATI), an Airbus subsidiary that has effectively served as the in-house cargo airline since 1996 from the manufacturer.

This final transfer to ATI marks the conclusion of the Airbus BelugaXL program originally launched in 2014. The Beluga XL was developed as a successor to the A300-600ST, the iconic original ‘Beluga’ freighter introduced to transport aircraft parts to the company’s final assembly plants. The original Belugas themselves took over the role that was filled in the 1970s and 1980s by four Aero Spacelines Super Guppies – heavily converted Boeing (yes, Boeing!) Stratocruisers.

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As is usual when the first airframe leaves the assembly line, the first BelugaXL was not immediately put into service. After the first flight, it served as a test platform for the program until 2023. According to Airbus, the aircraft completed more than 800 hours of flight testing in four years, during which pilots examined how the type handled the types of operating conditions it would encounter while traveling. between eleven European destinations.

Now, after a major renovation, the first aircraft is already an active part of the ATI fleet. Offering 30% more payload than its predecessor A300-600ST, the BelugaXL has been a crucial part of Airbus’ plan to ramp up production in recent years, a plan that will continue in the future as the aircraft manufacturer looks to meet its obligations. to numerous airlines worldwide.

The development team for the BelugaXL was purposefully centralized at its inception in 2014, bringing approximately 1,000 Airbus engineers and suppliers together in one location to accelerate the development program. Parts, equipment and design principles were reused and borrowed from other Airbus platforms that helped the BelugaXL from the drawing board to its first flight in just five years.

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The six purpose-built BelugaXL transporters were each built at Airbus’ final assembly plant in Toulouse, France, and regularly transport sub-assemblies and components between Airbus’ European production sites. Each mission has an average turnaround time of just 70 minutes, thanks to specially designed loading facilities at Airbus factories in France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Based on the A330-200 freighter, each BelugaXL has a payload of 51 tons (112,435 lbs.) and a range of 2,200 nautical miles (4,075 km). According to Airbus, the plane is as long as two blue whales and as tall as a three-story office building. The aircraft can accommodate the largest fuselage section of the A350 or two of the widebody’s 30-meter wings at the same time.

Last BelugaXL delivery

ATI’s BelugaXL fleet is expected to reach 9,500 annual flight hours by 2027, up from the planned 6,500 flight hours in 2024. Additionally, the BelugaXL, like its predecessor, can operate on a blend of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), helping Airbus achieve its goal can reach. of the steadily increasing use of SAF in its internal air operations.

The six aircraft together are expected to carry approximately 5% more payload in 2024 compared to the mixed BelugaXL and Beluga ST fleet of 2019. ATI itself states that its fleet will emit 20% less CO2 emissions in 2024, also compared to of 2019.

ATI hopes to operate the BelugaXL for 30 years. The program’s production infrastructure (including construction jigs and tooling) will be decommissioned and placed in storage, in case additional aircraft are needed in the future.

Airbus A350 SAF study