tip off
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The last 747 is in trouble

Feburary 8, 2010, the 747-8 makes its first flight, image from Wikipedia Commons

Feburary 8, 2010, the 747-8 makes its first flight, image from Wikipedia Commons

There is more to the overnight news of changes in the leadership of the Boeing 747-8F freighter and 747-8I passenger jet programs.

Boeing refused to show the jet off at the Farnborough Air Show in July citing program delays. It has never dealt in any categorical manner with claims that the wing is flawed by flutter issues, and only made passing references to a low speed vibration issue triggered by a poorly designed landing gear door.

More official poster art, of the passenger version. Graphic by Boeing

More official poster art, of the passenger version. Graphic by Boeing

For Boeing to admit that it couldn’t get the gear arrangements right for a version of the jet family which first flew more than 41 years ago is about as damning an insight into the state of the company as any.

Boeing is being less that forthright about the full delays to the project. The 747-8F freighter version (76 sold) hasn’t just slipped from the last quarter of this year to some time in 2011, but from late 2009, which was the original promise.

The passenger version was originally promised to Lufthansa for mid 2010, hasn’t even flown yet and seems unlikely to be deliverable until sometime in 2012. There are only 33 orders for the passenger version including one in VIP fit out to Kuwait.

It is reasonable to surmise that if Boeing doesn’t fix the wing and other issues on this jet promptly some of its customers will walk, and it wouldn’t take much by way of cancellations to kill it.

The 747 story deserves a better ending than this, but despite Joe Sutter’s best efforts as part of its Boeing’s advisory ‘kitchen cabinet’ the last chapter is looking a bit sad at this stage.

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  • 1
    Fueldrum
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t share your pessimism here. A delay of just a few years won’t matter too much to most of the airlines concerned – in a few cases they seem pleased that there has been a delay because the global financial shrinkage has reduced demand for their services. Certainly Luftansa’s finances could use a short-term reduction in capital spending!!

    According to Boeing’s original online sales literature, the plan was to use lighter structural materials, newer engines and (slightly) better aerodynamics to match the A380 for seat costs, while (obviously) beating it for trip costs. If Boeing can achieve that goal, albeit a few years late, wouldn’t you still prefer to be operating a 747-8 than an A380? There are far more licensed 747 pilots and engineers available and it doesn’t need any airport modification (which is important for certain cargo carriers). With lower trip costs but matching seat costs you can match the fares charged by other carriers without the headaches of changing aircrews, maintainence crews and operating systems for the A380.

    The valuable passengers are the ones who will pay more for a flight at a convenient time, or a direct flight rather than a hub&spoke arrangement. These are the passengers that generate high margins and good returns on an airline’s capital. These are usually business passengers. A smaller aircraft can generate more frequency on a given route, and fly more routes on a direct basis, and thus get more of these high-margin customers.

    The 747 will remain the only plane between the 777 and the A380 for size. That’s a sizeable section of the market if the plane is airworthy and has the cost profile originally forecast by Boeing.

    A few year’s delay won’t seriously affect that. The only showstopper would be if the safety and cost issues can’t be fixed at all.

  • 2
    comet
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    The first order for a 747-100 was placed in April 1966, and completed its airworthiness certification in December 1969. The whole thing took about 3 and a half years.

    Lufthansa placed its first 747-8 order in December 2006. That’s almost 4 years ago, and the aircraft has still not been delivered.

    The 747-8 has taken much longer to develop than the original 747 did in the 1960s.

    Boeing has lost the plot and is headed towards catastrophe.

  • 3
    joey
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    As if the pax version’s ever going to fly in regular service. Could they have any less orders?

  • 4
    Malcolm Street
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Fueldrum – “If Boeing can achieve that goal, albeit a few years late, wouldn’t you still prefer to be operating a 747-8 than an A380? There are far more licensed 747 pilots and engineers available and it doesn’t need any airport modification (which is important for certain cargo carriers). With lower trip costs but matching seat costs you can match the fares charged by other carriers without the headaches of changing aircrews, maintainence crews and operating systems for the A380. ”

    The problem with being “a few years late” is that the conversion of crews, airports support for the A380 is already well under way. The longer it takes, the less of an advantage the 747-8 will have. In the meantime the airlines waiting on the new 747 are flying old ones and losing ground to airlines flying the A380.

    Remember the VC-10? Designed with rear engines so it could use shorter, piston-engined era runways than the 707. Thought there’d be a nice market niche there because the cost of upgrading runways would mean a lot of airports would stay with the old ones. But by the time it was in service, all the runways had been lengthened to 707 length because jet services were something you *had* to have.

  • 5
    Fueldrum
    Posted August 31, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Street,

    No I don’t remember the VC-10 – I’m not that old!!! Still I’m aware that the VC-10 was troubled by far more than a short delay. The cancerous problems in the English aircraft industry in those days are a matter of record.

    Jet service was “something you had to have” because customers preferred it for a whole range of reasons. The price a passenger would agree to pay, compared to the total cost of providing the service, was more favourable for jets than it was for pistons.

    Why would a valuable business passenger pay more to fly in an A380? I wouldn’t. The 747-8 is no less comfortable, fast or convenient. So the only way the A380 will knock out the 747-8 is if its cost of purchase, and/or cost of operation, are superior.

    The 747-8 does make no sense if the cost targets aren’t met, or if it can’t meet safety requirements. But I haven’t seen any evidence yet that that’s the case. To achieve these targets Boeing is trying to use composite materials to reduce the empty airframe weight, fitting lower-drag wings and applying engines that need less fuel to generate the required thrust. If it’s more convenient and efficient for airlines and equally desireable for passengers, it’s a winner.

    A late winner perhaps, but still a winner.

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