Airbus is expanding the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in its fleet of oversize cargo aircraft and today operated the first Beluga flight using SAF from its UK wing plant at Broughton in Wales. The Wales production facility, which uses the European aerospace company’s Beluga fleet to transport aircraft wings to final assembly lines in Toulouse, France and to Hamburg and Bremen in Germany, becomes the second Airbus European site to use SAF, after Hamburg. Hamburg introduced SAF to its cargo activities already more than a year ago, at the end of 2019. “This first flight by a Beluga transporter from Broughton, partially fueled with SAF, marks an important milestone in Airbus’ ambition to decarbonize its industrial operations,” says Airbus Sustainable Aviation Fuels Project Manager Tony Derrien.

The Beluga fleet operating from Airbus’ wings plant in Broughton will initially be loaded with a 35% blend of non-fossil derived fuel and 65% conventional Jet A-1, set to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 400 tonnes over the next three months. Airbus is looking to bring this up to a 50/50 blend in the coming years, notes Andy Owen, Beluga Line Station Manager at Broughton. Sustainable aviation fuels are currently certified by regulators for up to 50% use in commercial flights. Airbus expects to carry out some 60 Beluga flights using SAF from its wings manufacturing site in 2021. “We are hoping to ramp this up in the coming years,” Owen says, adding that eventually both the BelugaST and the new BelugaXL will use SAF. “The progressive deployment of sustainable aviation fuels at Airbus’ sites is an essential part of our decarbonization roadmap,” he stresses. He describes the Belugas beginning to use SAF as a “huge message,” not only to the industry but to the world as a whole “that if Airbus can use SAF than our customers can too.”

The SAF used by the Beluga super-transporter fleet is made from used sustainable feedstocks, such as cooking oil, and supplied to Airbus in Broughton and Hamburg by Air bp. Airbus is also buying SAF from Air bp, the specialized aviation division of BP, for commercial aircraft deliveries from its site in Hamburg, Germany since last year. The European aircraft manufacturer started offering customers the option of receiving new jetliners with sustainable fuel in their tanks back in 2016. Such delivery flights started from the Airbus headquarters production facility in Toulouse, France, followed by Mobile, Alabama, US.  “Combined with our ongoing research into the potential for 100% SAF in commercial flights, reducing fossil-fuels in our own operations underlines Airbus’ commitment to lessening the impact of our manufacturing footprint and contributing towards a more sustainable future for the aviation sector more generally,” says Derrien.

Looking like a beluga whale

Airbus owns five BelugaST planes to airlift complete sections of Airbus aircraft— such as fuselage sections, wings, and tails for its single-aisle A320 family aircraft, widebody A330 and A350 families and the military A400M—from different production sites around Europe to the final assembly lines in Toulouse, France and Hamburg, Germany. The five aircraft, also known as A300-600ST (Super Transporter) because the aircraft is derived from the company’s A330 widebody aircraft, entered service in 1995. It is nicknamed Beluga because of the whale it resembles.

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In 2020, Airbus began phasing in its fleet of six new-generation BelugaXL versions—which it will operate in parallel with the A300-600STs before replacing them completely. The XL version sports a special aquatic livery designed to look like an actual beluga whale. Because it is 7 meters longer and 1 meter wider than the ST version, the XL allows for 30 percent extra transport capacity and can carry two A350 XWB wings while the ST can carry only one. At 63.1 metres long and 8 metres wide, the BelugaXL has the largest cargo bay cross-section of all existing cargo aircraft worldwide.  The aircraft’s wingspan extends 60.3 meters and its height tops 18.9 meters. Two Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan engines suspended on underwing pylons power the aircraft, which carries a range of 2,200 nautical miles (4,074 km) and a maximum payload of 51 tonnes.