TOULOUSE Airbus carried out the maiden flight on Thursday of a new freight plane that could mark its entry into plane assembly in the United States, if it wins an epic contest with Boeing over refuelling planes.
The A330-200F is the freight version of the European planemaker's mid-sized passenger jet and aims to capture a larger share of a civil air cargo market dominated by Boeing.
The plane is due to enter service next summer with Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways, Airbus said, confirming a switch of operator reported by Reuters on Wednesday.
The first delivery was originally earmarked for Indian start-up Flyington Freighters, one of many new players that arrived in the market when the economy was peaking in 2007. But the air cargo sector has since slumped with the global economy.
Elsewhere on Thursday, South Africa cancelled a contract to buy eight Airbus A400M military transport planes, calling the deal an "unaffordable burden on the taxpayer" and raising the prospect Airbus's loss could benefit U.S. rivals.
Share in Airbus parent EADS closed up 0.5 percent after earlier declines, but lagged a stronger market.
The first windowless A330-200F cargo aircraft, assembled in Toulouse alongside the 253-seat passsenger version, flew for four hours in the first test flight.
Future production is tied up with the outcome of a battle between Airbus parent EADS, partnered by Northrop Grumman, and Boeing over a $35 billion deal to supply aerial tankers to the U.S. Air Force.
The tankers would be converted from the same model of passenger jet as the civil freighter that flew on Thursday.
Airbus has said it will build the A330 civil freighters next alongside an assembly line for military tankers that would be located in Alabama if it won the Pentagon contract.
Executives reaffirmed that commitment on Thursday.
Boeing is offering versions of either its 767 or larger 777 aircraft to replacer the Eisenhower-era U.S. tanker fleet.
Airbus says it has received 67 orders from 9 customers for the A330 freighter. Each plane has a list price of $184 million.
Built to carry 69 tonnes, the aircraft starts its testing programme nine months after the larger Boeing 777 freighter entered operations with Air France.
Despite the current downturn, Airbus says the world will need over 3,400 freighters in the next 20 years to cater for an expected 5.2 percent average annual growth rate.
That includes 1,600 mid-sized freighters, of which the A330-200F is aiming for an unspecified share.
Economists say air cargo is a useful barometer of global trade and the broader health of the economy.
About half of international trade by value is transported by air, according to airline industry lobby IATA.
(Addditional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Dan Lalor)