In a journey that began just under two years ago, Airbus embarked on an ambitious venture, giving wings to its outsized air-cargo service known as Airbus Beluga Transport (AiBT).
Operated by Airbus Transport International (ATI), AiBT recently achieved a significant milestone by obtaining its Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC).
Once the decisive AOC audit by the authorities was passed successfully on 27 September last year, there remained one important ‘box to tick’ – the “Continuous Airworthiness and Maintenance Organisation” certificate (CAMO), which came at the beginning of November.
With all these approvals successfully achieved, AiBT has reached the point of commencing operations under its own AOC.
The Path to Becoming an Airline
Managing Director of AiBT, Benoît Lemonnier, reflects on the journey, emphasizing that the transformation into an airline was not merely about paperwork but also involved strategic resource allocation.
The key to success lay in assembling a proficient team, establishing a new main office headquarters, and securing an operational base at Francazal airport near Toulouse.
“We recruited almost 60 employees, trained extensively, and ensured that every aspect of the company was ready for operations from ‘day one,’” says Benoît.
Short Hops and Operational Experience
To kickstart operations, AiBT wisely opted for short-haul flights on the existing Airbus network.
This approach, initiated in November, allows the airline to test internal procedures, train new crew members, and gain valuable operational experience before venturing into long-haul missions.
“AiBT is taking a cautious approach, ensuring that both flying crews and ground teams gain proficiency with short flights initially,” notes Benoît.
Steering the Flight Operations
A crucial addition to AiBT’s leadership is Olivier Schneider, appointed as the head of flight operations.
With over 20 years of experience in the Air France Group, Schneider brings valuable insights to the ramp-up of operations, crew training, and ground support team training.
“The challenge lies in learning on-the-fly, considering the novelty of this operation for many team members,” Schneider explains.
“Our ultimate goal is to smoothly operate five Belugas simultaneously worldwide, requiring meticulous resource management and coordination.”
Payloads and Certifications
As AiBT builds operational experience within Europe, it plans to expand its certified payloads to cater to external customers.
An agreement with Airbus for further investment aims to certify the BelugaST to carry a broader range of payloads, including helicopters, containers, and aircraft engines.
Benoît projects, “We’ve delivered payloads for Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defence and Space, and in 2024, we aim to expand our customer base significantly.”
Pilot Recruitment and Training
Recruiting qualified pilots for the unique BelugaST is a challenge, given its distinct characteristics. AiBT has secured an agreement for ATI’s pilots to join as captains or first officers for up to three years, providing a crucial bridge.
Simultaneously, the airline actively recruits external pilots, focusing on individuals with experience flying A300s and A310s.
“We’re fortunate to collaborate closely with the Airbus Training Center in Toulouse, ensuring our pilots undergo rigorous training on the A300/A310 full-flight simulator,” mentions Olivier.
Unique Challenges of Beluga Missions
Flying Beluga missions presents a set of challenges that distinguish it from regular freight operations. The Beluga fleet, originally designed for short European sectors, now faces the demands of long-haul missions, requiring multiple legs and varied altitudes.
“Our crews will experience unique conditions, flying at 20,000 ft at around Mach 0.7, handling payloads not typically certified for higher altitudes,” explains Olivier.
“Additionally, ground operations pose challenges due to the high cargo deck, necessitating careful coordination and specialized crews.”
As AiBT looks forward to achieving its goal of a fleet of five Belugas operating globally, the team remains committed to overcoming challenges and making a mark in the air cargo industry.
“Our goal is to have a fleet of five Belugas operating all around the world. To achieve this will be the culmination of several years of hard work,” says Oliver,
“I really look forward to this day, and the thought of Airbus’ mythical Belugas flying over the world’s continents fills me with eager expectation.”
“The market is here, and we will do our best to achieve this!” concludes Olivier, highlighting the anticipation surrounding Airbus’ iconic Beluga on its journey skyward.
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