By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) -Europe's Airbus took aim at one of Boeing's most profitable strongholds on Thursday with plans for a freighter version of its A350 passenger jet, gambling that a pandemic boom in Internet shopping will outlast the global health crisis.
Boeing has for years dominated air freight corridors with its windowless cargo planes, even as its European rival grabbed its crown as the world's largest maker of passenger jets.
Airbus said its board had backed an A350 freighter to enter service in 2025, but did not announce customers.
"We believe we have a very promising aircraft," Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said after unveiling better-than-expected half-year results.
Plans to challenge Boeing's control of the freight market, maintained for decades through its 767, 777 and 747 cargo jets, were first reported by Reuters in March.
The move is seen as certain to trigger a response after Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun on Wednesday listed developments including, "I hope in the relatively near term", a freighter version of the 777X.
The 777X is set to be the world's largest twin-engined passenger jet but its development has been delayed by tightening safety certification standards and weak passenger demand.
The head of Qatar Airways told Reuters last month Boeing was already showing designs for a 777X freighter.
Airbus has for months been informally canvassing support for an A350 freighter to be added to the smaller A330 freighter, whose sales have failed to keep up with the mid-sized 767 workhorse.
Airbus hopes the arrival of the world's first lightweight carbon-fibre freighter will provide an opening as tougher emission standards, restricting deliveries of existing 767 and 777 freighters, enter force in 2028.
Boeing is expected to argue that its larger 777X freighter will be more integrated with existing infrastructure.
Calhoun also said on Wednesday exemptions may be allowed for deliveries of current freighters that result in 40% lower emissions compared to the planes they replace.
Thursday's announcement formally begins a race to sign up buyers ranging from express and logistics firms like FedEx and UPS to freight-minded Asian airlines or dedicated cargo carriers led by Luxembourg's Cargolux.
At stake is Boeing's dominance of a lucrative but volatile corner of the jet market in which freighters can fetch higher prices than passenger equivalents, according to market sources.
"We are closer every day, but we are not at the point where we can announce commercial transactions," Faury said.
Reflecting an economy in transition, the jet's design must juggle the needs of e-commerce leaders like Amazon, who put a premium on the space available for their relatively light but bulky packages, to heavy-duty shippers hungry for more payload.
Industry sources said the A350 freighter would carry 109 tonnes compared with the projected 115-117 tonne capacity of the 777X version, though Boeing has yet to finalise any plans.
New freighters could support depressed output of wide-bodied jets pending a pick-up in international passenger travel.
About half of global cargo by value travels by air, and in turn half of that usually goes in the belly of passenger planes.
During the pandemic, many airlines have been forced to park unused passenger jets, driving up demand for cargo space on dedicated freighters at a time when e-commerce has been a lifeline for many during COVID lockdowns.
Economists warn the trends could start to unravel as the pandemic eases, but Faury said he was not worried about missing a wave of anticipated cargo replacements later this decade.
Boeing last year predicted demand for 2,430 freighters over 20 years, including 930 purpose-built cargo planes and 1,500 converted from passenger airplanes.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Carmel Crimmins and Jan Harvey)