Etihad Airways will consider two new freighter models – the new Airbus A350 and Boeing's proposed 777X – as replacements for the dedicated 777s it currently operates amid booming demand for air cargo.
The Abu Dhabi airline is also considering the conversion of 777 passenger aircraft to freighters, Tony Douglas, group chief executive of the Etihad Aviation Group, told The National at the Dubai Airshow.
"At the moment we operate five 777 dedicated freighters and at some stage they will need to be renewed. It will not be anytime soon but at some stage they will need to be renewed," he said.
"At the point in time they are going to be renewed, the A350 freighter is obviously going to be one we will consider in great detail, in the same way we will look at Boeing's offerings as well, but we will definitely look at A350 freighters as a potential successor in a very serious way because you go back to the fundamentals of the aircraft – its size, its range, its performance – it ticks all the boxes.
"We are absolutely delighted frankly that they are making it clear that they are going to develop the product ... This is great news for the industry in general."
Boeing and Airbus are capitalising on a jump in demand for dedicated and converted freighter aircraft after the Covid-19 pandemic grounded large wide-body passenger aircraft used for carrying cargo.
They are banking on a long-term boom in global e-commerce. Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was up 9.1 per cent in September, compared with the same month in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Etihad, which currently operates the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and will introduce the Airbus A350 passenger jet into its fleet, said the belly-hold of both aircraft will play a significant role in its cargo operations.
"The freight market is at an all-time high and this is unprecedented. It has never been so in the history of commercial aviation, and long may it continue. It saved us through the worst of the pandemic," Mr Douglas said.
"With the fact that 75 per cent of global air freight is carried in the belly-hold of aircraft, as opposed to freighters, you need both [aircraft] not just one or the other: the Dreamliner and the A350 are going to be massive in terms of our cargo."
In August, Etihad's engineering unit signed an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries to set up a site in Abu Dhabi that will convert Boeing 777-300ER passenger planes into freighters as air cargo demand strengthens globally.
Boeing and Airbus are a duopoly in terms of new-build freighters. However, "there is now a very big alternative that was not as obvious in the past: it is converting current 777-ERs from passenger to freighters", Mr Douglas said.
"So there's a number of options out there but they are all really exciting."
Etihad Airways is holding discussions with Boeing during the Dubai Airshow this week about its outstanding order of 787 Dreamliners. The plane maker has halted production of the aircraft as it copes with quality issues.
"We have still got Dreamliner deliveries that will be coming next year and the year after," Mr Douglas said. "Boeing, just as the market is coming back, are resetting now the clock. It is not a case of our side; it is more a function of Boeing spinning back up to speed and confirming delivery dates."
The airline is in talks with the Chicago-based plane maker about its ability to resume 787 deliveries.
"It is all about what they are able to deliver as opposed to what is currently outstanding in the next two years. In simple terms, yes we will be taking more 787s ... and because the market is not coming back at full anyway, they cannot and I am in no rush. It is as simple as that," Mr Douglas said.
"If either side of that got out of balance, that is, you can deliver but I do not want them, that is a problem. Or I want them and you cannot deliver, that is a problem," he said. "The fact that you cannot deliver and I do not want them is not a problem."
Etihad expects its future fleet to be a "two-horse stable" made up of the modern, fuel-efficient A350s and 787s, said Mr Douglas.
It plans to gradually phase out its 777 passenger jets and replace them with the A350-1000.
"So, if you look at configuration in terms of number of seats, give or take a few, the A350 is approximately the same size but a next-generation aircraft. We are phasing out the 777s and introducing these," he said.
Etihad will begin phasing out the 777s by the end of this year and will bring its first A350-1000 to service by the second quarter of 2022, Mr Douglas said.
The number of A350s and the pace at which they will be introduced into operations will depend on market conditions, he said.
"The dilemma we have been working through, just like every other airline, is reintroducing too much capacity before the market comes back," Mr Douglas said.
"So, we are being deliberately cautious in that regard and we need to get out the 777s first in order to make way for the A350."
Etihad has received delivery of its first A350, which made its debut at the Dubai Airshow, and is currently fitting the interiors on two more A350s at its engineering unit as it prepares to put them in service, he said.
"That is provided, and this is the small print you will hear from everybody in aviation, the market continues to come back. It goes without saying, if the market does not come back, we will not be putting unnecessary capacity out there," he said.
Etihad will "probably" have four A350-1000 aircraft in service by the end of 2022, he said.
"If the market comes back a lot faster, we might even squeeze in an extra one. If the market does not come back faster, it will end up being two. It is market driven," Mr Douglas said.
The airline will do a "progressive reveal" of its new A350 that will have a modern business-class and an "exceptional" economy class in terms of space, comfort and technology such as the in-flight entertainment system. It will also have fully recycled or sustainable products on board, he said.
Mr Douglas pointed to the gradual market recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and the trend of "revenge tourism" or passengers seeking to travel again after months of lockdown.
"The market appears to be coming back, which is great in this region. Let us hope it continues, let us hope there isn't another chapter in the pandemic book that sets us back again, but who knows," he said.
"What we are seeing is revenge tourism: so, the minute a destination comes back online, the bookings go crazy. Why? Because everyone wants to get back to the excitement and normality," he said.
At the Dubai Airshow, Etihad is planning to sign pacts with Boeing, to continue their commitment to the Greenliner sustainability test-bed programme, and with Airbus, whose A350 will join the programme. The National reported in October about the Airbus plans.
This includes ways to fly the A350 plane even more sustainably by using sustainable aviation fuels, optimising engine performance and co-ordinating flight planning, Mr Douglas said.
The fly-by display on the first day of the show was led by the Boeing Greenliner in a "symbolic" gesture of the concrete commitment to sustainability, he said.