Boeing (doesn’t) prepare to deliver first 747-8F and we look at the program; update 9/17

Update, Sept. 17: Boeing must feel snake-bit.

We had boarded our flight to ISTAT Barcelona and were still at the gate in Seattle when news erupted that the first delivery of the 747-8F to Cargolux is off. AirInsight has a commentary on this. We expect to pick up some intel on the issue, perhaps as early as the Sunday night reception but otherwise Monday or Tuesday. Watch our reporting from Barcelona.

Original Post

As Boeing prepares for delivery ceremonies for the 747-8F to Cargolux Airlines September 19—an event we will miss because of travel in Europe to the ISTAT conference—The Boeing Co., its employees, suppliers, and the airline personnel are justifiably excited.

Not only does this represent the hand-over after a two year delay in a difficult program, it represents the largest airliner Boeing has ever built, the latest and most advanced version of the venerable 747 but it also represents what is almost certainly the last 747 model that will ever be built.

As cool and as whiz-bang as the 747-8 is (though obviously, Lufthansa’s 747-8I will have more panache than a freighter), our thoughts go in a different direction.

We think about the entire 747 program, beginning with the 747-100—the airplane that ushered in a new era in air transportation, just as the 707 was a revolution from the piston era.

The 747-100 caused Boeing to create the Everett (WA) facility, which has been the home to every twin-aisle airplane the company has built and expanded at least once. The building is enormous, with workers often commuting within the building on bicycles or golf carts.

The Everett plant is home to thousands of Boeing employees and attracted scores of suppliers employing tens of thousands more in the greater Puget Sound area. The contribution to Washington State’s economy is massive.

The story of the 747-100 is legendary and need not be recounted in detail here. The first wide-body commercial aircraft, it was intended to be a transitional aircraft between the 707/Douglas DC-8 and the SST.

Joe Sutter, a legend in his own right, came up with the idea of putting to cargo containers side-by-side and drawing the fuselage around it and putting the flight deck on top to allow a nose hatch, making the 747 the iconic freighter it is. But the thought was that after a short time—less than 10 years—the 747 would be superseded by the SST and existing 747s—and all future ones—would be cargo airplanes. Little did anyone know the 747 would become the Queen of the Skies, the ultimate in national prestige with countries that had no business ordering the giant airplane did so as a symbol of national pride.

The 747-100 nearly bankrupted Boeing. The photo of the billboard that became infamous, “Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?”, became representative of Puget Sound’s reliance on Boeing and the drag Boeing had on the economy when its fortunes declined as cost overruns on the 747 coupled with a national recession nearly did the company in.

There were many 747s parked at Paine Field with yellow weights hanging from the pylons because engine development of the Pratt & Whitney JT9Ds—the first of its kind—ran late.

The 747-100’s entry into service, in January 1970, came at the height of a recession, leading airlines to configure the aircraft with few passengers and, in the case of American Airlines, a piano bar. It was at the time an epitome of luxury that is being replicated in similar respects when operators began introducing the Airbus A380 into service, also at a time of a global recession.

After teething problems with the 747-100 that affected reliability and initial passenger acceptance, the 747 proved immensely popular. Boeing followed with several variations: the 747SP “Special Performance,” the 747-200/200B, -300 and -400 as well as combi versions and the 747-400F.

There were false starts, too. Boeing pondered the 747-500, -600 and 747X, none of which went further than concepts.

The development of the 787 with its new GEnx advanced engines gave life to the 747-8. But the program spun out of control. What was supposed to be a straight-forward re-engine and modest stretch of the airplane evolved into one with new systems, a new wing and a host of aerodynamic problems. Hampered by a shortage of engineers retained by or diverted to the troubled 787 program, development of the 747-8 was shrouded in its own turmoil.

The impact of the 747 on Puget Sound, as noted above, was dramatic in the employment it spurred, the near-bankruptcy of Boeing, the creation of the Everett facility and the prestige of owning and operating the airplane by the world’s airlines.

When the Secret Service decided it was time to replace the Boeing 707-320B that served as Air Force One, the 747-200B was the obvious choice. Now that the aging 747s that serve as Air Force One are nearing retirement age, it is likely the 747-8I will get the nod.

The current Air Force One, a 747-200B (above). An Airbus A380 Air Force One (below)? Not a chance. Even Airbus said it would not bid on this procurement.

The impact of the 747’s position in aerospace also was felt at Airbus. The 747 held a position well above Airbus’ largest airplane, the A340 family, and Airbus was firmly convinced that Boeing’s monopoly in this space enabled the 747 to subsidize sales of the 737, 757, 767 and 777 across from the A320 family, the A330 and the A340. Airbus sorely wanted to challenge this monopoly, and did so with the A380 that is about 25% larger than the 747.

The jury will be out for years, if not decades, to come whether Airbus made the right call. Boeing undertook an effective public relations campaign arguing that the era of the giant jet has come and gone (even while developing the 747-8), superseded by the 777-300ER and the 787 which cater to point-to-point routes rather than hub traffic.

Airbus counters that (1) world passenger growth demands larger airplanes (a point Boeing also argues at the lower end of the scale but will not concede for the upper end); and (2) hub-to-hub is also point-to-point, which is, in fact, true.

The A380 has surpassed the 747 as the Queen of the Skies if size and passenger comfort are the criteria. We’ve been in the cabin mock-ups of both airplanes, and the A380’s upper deck has the 747-8’s upper deck beat hands down (unless you like what might be classified as the more intimate feel of the 747’s upper deck). The A380 seats in coach are roomier because the cabin allows for 18 inch seats instead of 17 inches in the 747.

But as for looks—there is nothing that beats the sleek beauty and unique profile of the 747. The A380 flies well but darn, it’s fat and ugly (but awfully impressive on the air show circuit).

So as Boeing prepares to deliver the first two 747-8Fs to Cargolux this month and the first 747-8I to Lufthansa after the first of the year, our thoughts turn not to the future but to the nostalgia.

Launch customers Cargolux for the 747-8F (above) and Lufthansa for the 747-8I (below).

The Old Gal has had quite the run. And she’s got quite the future left in her, too.

16 comments on “Boeing (doesn’t) prepare to deliver first 747-8F and we look at the program; update 9/17

  1. About the looks of the 747 versus the A380 I remember that when the 747 was first introduced to the public it took me a while to get used to it’s shape. But after a while I started to like the distinctive personality of the 747.

    And when the A380 was in it’s turn introduced to the public my initial reaction was that they had not done a bad job for a double-decker. A full double-decker that is. I thought it was rather elegant and would be even more so in a stretch version. Now after being exposed to it for a few years it has started to grow on me and I find it even more attractive.

    Some will say the A380 looks like a fat whale. Yes, maybe. But is there something more majestic in the ocean than a big fat whale? And is there something more majestic in the air than a big fat A380?

    As I got used to the A380 the 747 started to look outdated, even weird. I always thought that the 747 hump needed to be stretched all the way back to make sense. Today I find the 747-8I less attractive that the 747-100/200. With the 747-400 falling between the two. In my mind the hump is to be kept either very short or extended all the back to the tail. Anything in between looks a bit weird to me.

    These aesthetic considerations do not diminish the profound admiration I always had for the 747. I have never flown on the A380 but I flew many times onboard the 747 and I always thought it was in a class by itself.

    If I had to describe the 747 in one word I would say it was a revolutionary airplane.

    If I had to describe the A380 in one word I would say it’s a “me too” aircraft.

  2. Sorry Scott, but there will be only one Queen of the Skies, and she’s the 747. Having flown both, there is still something special about the 747. I couldn’t agree with you more, she’s a beauty and I look forward to flying on the 747-8i that we’ll be taking next Spring.
    The A380 is impressive in its creature comforts, but will never replace the 747 in her rightful place as Queen, IMHO.

  3. Normand Hamel :
    Some will say the A380 looks like a fat whale. Yes, maybe. But is there something more majestic in the ocean than a big fat whale? And is there something more majestic in the air than a big fat A380?

    Yes, a big fat _white_ A380 doing the approach to XFW watched from the A7 Abfahrt Stellingen bridge ;-)

    it just hangs there moving seemingly rather slowly like an Airship passing over the city and harbor. ( Beluga coming in looks good too but just not that impressive )

    • Apropos:
      I still have the DIN A0 poster introducing the 747 that german magazine Hobby
      published towards its EIS in 1969 in my stash of collectibles.

  4. Excellent resume, quite appropriate for the venerable 747 as the old girl becomes an increasing rarity, it will be interesting too see how airlines & passengers react to the reworked model. Also Importantly we will see how the industry accepts the 7478i by new orders.

    The 380 launched a new era of wide body travel & one that provides previously unheard of levels in comfort & cabin quality, whilst some may nostalgically reflect about thew 747 the 380 EIS was in fact a coronation that created a new queen of the skies.

    • And just to add, I think after the SP, the -8 is probably the worst looking 747 family imo. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been seeing the -400 a lot longer, but for me the lack of winglets and it’s gangly length, just takes something away from the look that the -400 has, which I really liked. Though I still think the 77W is my favorite Boeing plane in terms of looks(be surprised all you want). I like big engines

  5. Wonderful recap of the 747 story, Scott. I think the 737-8 is a marvel that cannot be duplicated. This is the first time the 747 has ever been stretched (other than the upper deck which made the 747 the fastest commecial airplane flying (area ruling effect)), which speaks to the need (or not) for bigger airplanes. This stretch positions it perfectly between the 777 and the giant A380. For me, I like the 747 upper deck intimacy. It’s popularity with the flying public has made it the most popular single-aisle cabin flying.

  6. The B747-8 is good example concerning the “upgrade” of an existing aircraft, and everybody crying for re-engined A330, B767 or B707 should have a look at it.

    The B747-400 really was a technical dinosaur: no supercritical profile, 1980ies style engines, heavy flap system. So there was lots of room for improvement, at least when compared to A330 or B767.
    Now look at the disaster: the “simple” enhancement became a costly effort. The delays are partly due to lack of resources caused by the B787.

    The competitive situation is twofold: the freighter has successfully killed the A380F (which was not the most brilliant design, either). It is without competition and a very capable machine. However, freighter business is a tricky one, and only a limited number of airlines operate new built freighters. Many switch to smaller aircraft. Toughest competitor of the -8F are probably converted -400.
    The situation for the passenger aircraft is bleak: again, the aircraft apparently is a good performer, but its competition is even better. The B777-300ER is only slightly smaller, but offers lower cost and a safer investment. The A380 is considerably larger, but for network-oriented airlines the extra capacity can usually be absorbed.

    I doubt Boeing will ever really earn money on the -8I.

    The B747-8 is a good aircraft, and its lack of success is mostly caused by the strong competition on the upper and lower side of its payload-range capability.

  7. Boeing feeling “snake bit” ?

    I would not think so. not with any foundation in tangible reality.

    It is the same type of missguided pressing forward we saw with announcements
    of “Dreamliner First Flight just around the corner” that completely unexpectedly
    evaporated at the Paris AirShow.

  8. Pingback: Boeing (doesn’t) prepare to deliver first 747-8F and we look at the program | Boeing Commercial Airplanes | Scoop.it

  9. I talked with someone at THE highest level on the 747-8 program during
    it’s development phase and strongly suggested that they stretch the upper
    deck all the way to the back, to take advantage of that extremely low-cost
    peace of “real-estate” available on the aft upper deck on the a/p, which
    would substantially LOWER the seat-mile cost of the airplane and thus
    make it much more attractive to the airlines, also in comparison with the
    A380!

    The explanation I got for NOT doing so, was that the a/p would become
    too heavy, which I still do NOT understand, because the added weight/
    seat for that aft compartment would have been made available to the
    airlines at a MUCH lower cost/seat compared to the existing seats, would
    thus have LOWERED the seat-mile cost of the overall a/p, made the a/p a
    more attractive purchase for the airlines than it has been and might have
    also sold in larger numbers than it has so far!
    Anybody other than Normand Hamel in agreement with me?

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