TOULOUSE, FRANCEAirbus's new widebody freighter is drawing interest from major cargo operators after the company got board approval to launch the program.

Airbus confirmed in late July the board of directors had signed off on a plan to develop a freighter version of the A350 jet by 2025, enabling the European planemaker to challenge Boeing’s dominance of the market.

Airbus is now authorized to make formal sales pitches to potential customers, with United Parcel Service (UPS) and DHL Worldwide Express gearing up for purchase decisions.

UPS Chief Financial Officer Brian Newman said that while the company’s existing order book is sufficient to meet requirements for the next three years, it is working on a review of longer-term needs.

A spokesman for DHL said two days later the company is interested in both the A350F and Boeing’s 777X freighter, while Air France-KLM is looking at how to take advantage of a strong cargo market, potentially with an additional plane.

Demand for freighters has boomed during the pandemic, as stuck-at-home shoppers turned to e-commerce giants such as Inc to buy goods. This exposed Airbus’s relatively weak market position when compared with Boeing, forcing a rethink from Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury.

While Boeing has freighter versions of its 777, 767, and outgoing 747 models, Airbus’s only foray into the market has been the failed cargo version of the smaller A330.

Airbus plans to keep widebody jet production rates low for the foreseeable future, currently building just five A350s a month as the airline industry struggles to recover from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Scooping up a share of the freighter market would help bolster the commercial jet program, with further cargo growth expected.

Israel Aerospace Industries said this week that it had begun making modifications on its first passenger Boeing 777-300 jetliner, a process that will take about 130 days to repurpose it for freight.

According to Airbus CEO Mr. Faury, the airframer’s new cargo jet will have 40% less fuel burn than four-engine freighters such as the Boeing 747 model. That should make it an attractive choice for customers, he said.

“It’s a very good case for us,” Faury said on a conference call. “We have a very strong A350 platform and bringing a freighter version makes a lot of sense.”

Airbus indicates that its proposed A350 freighter derivative will be a light hybrid of its current variants but primarily based on the -1000. The company is aiming for a 2025 entry into service for the twinjet, after the company secured board approval for its development, but the airframer is yet to disclose any potential launch customers.

“It’s based on the existing [A350] building blocks to a large extent,” said Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury, speaking during a first-half results briefing on 29 July.

But he says the freighter design is “predominantly coming from the -1000” and the larger A350 variant will be the “main driver”.

While performance details have yet to emerge fully, Faury says the freighter will have a 90t-plus payload capability.

Production will be “embedded” in the current A350 assembly lines, he adds, and Airbus expects to benefit from the “weight of learning” from its BelugaXL program, the outsize freighter for its logistics arm which was developed from the A330.