End of an era: Airbus to stop making the A300

Airbus is to stop production of its A300 and A310 models — the original airbuses that went on the production line in 1969. This will leave a gaping hole in the mid-sized cargo plane market, which will probably be exploited by the Boeing 767. After 861 orders since their launch - the first A300 was delivered to Air France in 1974 — the European plane manufacturer has decided not to make any more A300 or A310 aircraft.

FedEx, the largest operator of A300 and A310 air freighters, received its last factory-built A300-600 freighter late last month, marking the end of an era. This leaves air cargo operators facing a vacuum in mid-sized cargo planes that will likely last for years.

With over 120 A300 and A310 planes still in service, FedEx is the largest operator of the air freighter. The A300-600F, the most modern of the A330 series freighters, can carry 55 tonnes over distances up to 3,700 km.

Its projected successor, the A330-200F, will be able to carry 64 tonnes over 7,400 km or 69 tonnes up to 5,930 km. But it is projected to enter commercial service only in the second half of 2009, leaving the field open for Boeing's B767-300F for the interregnum.

The American manufacturer, too, was to throw in the towel. It was only after they received sizeable orders from UPS and DHL earlier this year that Boeing decided to continue producing B767-300 freighters. With the B787 due to enter service next year, there is widespread speculation that the US manufacturer will no longer make 767s.

Carriers have retired older B747 and DC-10 freighters from their fleets, but there are practically no A300 or B767 cargo planes sitting idle on the ground, and the aircraft are still in demand. Both Airbus and Boeing predict the strongest demand for cargo planes in the mid-size bracket over the coming two decades.

Boeing projects that wide-body freighters with payloads between 40 and 80 tonnes will boost their share of the world's freighter fleet from 23 per cent in 2005 to 30 per cent in 2025. Airbus, which has clocked up 66 firm orders for the forthcoming A330F, confirms this.

Atlas Air, the world's leading ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) provider of 747 freighters, revealed in July that it was looking to branch out into this segment. GE Capital Aviation Services is also headed in that direction and will most likely go in for 767-300 conversions.

In Asia, Japan Airlines and ANA have recently taken on converted B767 freighters. Korean Air has converted two A300-600s into all-cargo configuration, and China Southern and China Eastern intend to turn six A300-600s into freighters. In part, this is because smaller aircraft like the A320 and the B737-800 are replacing medium wide-body aircraft on passenger routes.

Intra-Asian routes and the North-South America sector are seen as the best opportunities for mid-sized freighters, as well as Europe-Africa to a lesser extent. The North Atlantic and transpacific markets, on the other hand, are not likely to see a too many new 40 to 80 tonne cargo planes.