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Airbus completes BelugaXL fleet

The final handover to ATI marks the closure of the BelugaXL programme,
The final handover to ATI marks the closure of the BelugaXL programme © Airbus

This June, the last BelugaXL (BXL) has joined its five counterparts at Transport International (ATI), having served as the type's test aircraft. ATI, an Airbus subsidiary, has been the company's internal airline since 1996.

Offering 30% more payload capacity than its predecessor, the A300-600ST, the BXL is crucial to Airbus' accelerating production ramp-up. The six specially commissioned airlifters, built in Toulouse, France, transport sub-assemblies and components between Airbus' European manufacturing sites. Each mission averages a turnaround time of just 70 minutes, thanks to specially designed loading facilities at plants in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK.

The final handover to ATI marks the closure of the BelugaXL programme, launched in 2014. The development team was centralised, bringing together some 1,000 Airbus engineers and suppliers to streamline decision-making and processes. Parts, equipment and design principles were reused and borrowed from Airbus platforms wherever possible. This approach helped the BXL progress from the drawing board to its first in just five years. As is traditional for the first airframe to leave the assembly line, BXL#1 did not enter service immediately. Instead, following its maiden flight, it served as the programme's test platform until 2023. In four years, the giant airlifter completed over 800 flight test hours, during which pilots assessed its handling under various operating conditions encountered when travelling between 11 European destinations.

Now, after a well-deserved rest and a major refurbishment, BXL#1 is ready to carry its share of the load. The extra lift is welcome, as every Airbus commercial aircraft programme is ramping up production through 2024. Based on the A330-200 freighter, each BelugaXL has a payload capacity of 51 tonnes and a range of 2,200 nautical miles. The aircraft is as long as two blue whales and as tall as a three-storey office block. Its hold is spacious enough to accommodate 26 small cars or seven elephants. Most importantly, the airlifter can transport the largest fuselage section or two of the widebody's 30-metre long wings, whereas its predecessor could only carry one.

ATI's BelugaXL fleet is projected to reach 9,500 flight hours annually by 2027, compared to a planned 6,500 flight hours in 2024. Furthermore, like its predecessor, the BXL can operate with a blend of sustainable aviation fuel (), aiding Airbus in its goal to increase SAF use in its internal air operations.

In 2023, SAF accounted for over half of ATI's fuel consumption. The drop-in sustainable fuel is already available across almost all the BXL's European network. By 2030, the entirety of the fleet's flight operations will be performed with SAF, in accordance with Airbus' sustainability roadmap. The BXL's greater capacity also means fewer flights are required compared to its predecessor. It's expected that in 2024, the six aircraft combined will transport around five per cent more payload compared to 2019's mixed BXL and Beluga ST fleet. ATI itself anticipates emitting 20% fewer carbon emissions in 2024, also compared to 2019.

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