Taiwanese startup Starlux Airlines orders 5 A350 freighters from Airbus

European manufacturer, Boeing tied in battle for next-gen cargo aircraft

Eric Kulisch·Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Taiwan-based Starlux Airlines, which has only existed for four years and operates 21 passenger jets, on Tuesday inked a deal to buy five next-generation A350 cargo jets from Airbus.

The announcement, which was made by the companies during the Singapore Airshow, is noteworthy because Starlux is so new and currently doesn’t operate cargo jets, and because Airbus is on a winning streak against rival Boeing’s future freighter, the 777-8.

Starlux Airlines will become the first Taiwanese airline to operate Airbus’ newly designed freighter later this decade. It said the aircraft will be deployed on major intercontinental trade routes. Starlux diversified into cargo to take advantage of expected demand for electronic components and semiconductors, for which Taiwan is a major source, according to aviation news site The Air Current.

Starlux also received an option for five additional freighters, Reuters reported. It’s main competitors in Taiwan are China Airlines and Eva Airways.

Airbus didn’t provide a delivery timeline but has previously said the first unit will be ready in 2026. With several other airlines already in line, it could be 2028 before Starlux sees its first freighter.

The A350s will offer the benefit of familiarity and fuel economy for Starlux. The airline has an all-Airbus fleet of varying sizes, including four Airbus A350-900 passenger jets. 

Starlux also placed an order for three additional A330neo widebody passenger aircraft.

Currently under development, the A350Fwill be able to carry a payload of up to 122 tons and fly up to 4,700 nautical miles, according to Airbus. 

The A350F will feature the industry’s largest main deck cargo door. More than 70% of the airframe is made of advanced materials. Airbus claims the lighter airframe and efficient Rolls Royce engines produce a 20% advantage in fuel burn and CO2 emissions over the legacy Boeing 777 currently in production, as well as the older Boeing 747-400. 

How the A350 and Boeing 777-8 measure up

The Starlux contract puts Airbus at 55 orders for the A350 freighter from nine airlines and leasing companies. In December, Turkish Airlines committed to five of the widebody freighters and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said it would buy six of them. Air France-KLM in early 2023 ordered an additional four A350Fs for a total of eight aircraft. 

Boeing also has 55 orders for the 777-8, although the largest number was placed in January 2023 by launch customer Qatar Airways and there were none in 2023. 

Cargo airlines have been cautious since mid-2022 about investing in new aircraft because of the severe downturn that gripped the air cargo industry and only began to ease in the final months of last year.

Although Boeing has been shut out since late 2022 in the battle for the next evolution in freighters, it’s too early to say whether the market is beginning to favor the Airbus product. Many airlines are heavily influenced by whether they already have Boeing or Airbus fleets because pilot training, maintenance, spare part logistics and operations are easier, and less expensive, with a common platform. 

The 777-8 has a slight payload advantage and one extra pallet on both the main and lower decks than the A350. 

Aerospace expert Mike Stengel, a principal at Aerodynamic Advisory, added that Boeing’s future freighter has a single supplier for the cargo loading system that maneuvers containers into place on each flight deck, whereas Airbus is using different vendors. “Some operators might find this to be a pain for maintenance and overseeing an additional supplier for one of the more expensive systems on the aircraft,” he said.

In addition to a wider cargo door, the A350 beats the 777-8 on range by 600 nautical miles. The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB97 engines on the A350 also have proven quite durable over the past decade, which Stengel noted could be a big selling point considering how many airlines have been burned in the past year by quality issues related to GE, CFM and Pratt & Whitney engines.