Bloomberg has this story about the prospect of replacing Air Force One “early in the next decade.” Aviation Week has this story as well. The Aviation Week story links to the Dayton Business Journal, and reports that the USAF wants a commercial derivative, four-engine airplane for delivery in 2021 or later. This description, of course, says “Boeing 747-8″ without saying so.
The assumption is that Boeing will provide the 747-8I (Airbus already said it will not bid the A380), but the timing could make it problematic. At August 31, there was a backlog of just 53 8Is and 8Fs, or 30 months at the current production rate of 1.75 per month–to 2016. Boeing has had several dry spells for orders. The 8I isn’t selling well at all and the cargo market hasn’t recovered yet, suppressing sales for the 8F. How does Boeing keep the 747-8 production going until delivery of Air Force One replacements “early next decade”?
Boeing has a couple of 8I campaigns we’ve heard about, hoping for orders this year. These include British Airways and Lufthansa Airlines and a third airline we haven’t yet identified. Lufthansa is expected to announce a wide body order any day now. The publicly acknowledged competition has been between the Airbus A350 and a combination of the Boeing 787-10 and the yet-to-be-launched Boeing 777X. But the 787-10 entry-into-service is planned for 2018 and the 777-9X in around 2020, followed a year later by the 777-8X. Airbus is believed to have delivery slots earlier that either Boeing airplane.
So what would entice Lufthansa to buy Boeing with the later delivery slots? According to our market intelligence, Boeing has offered LH the 747-8I at steep discounts to serve as an interim airplane. This not only would keep LH in the Boeing camp but would help keep the 747-8 production line open. An order from the second of the three airlines would also be needed in this scenario to keep the line open. These orders would also enable Boeing to avoid another write-off for the 747-8 program, our market intelligence says.
But does Air Force One have to be a four-engine airplane? The Secret Service reportedly demanded such when seeking a replacement for the Boeing 707, but according to Wikipedia, the USAF specified a plane with at least three engines and 6,000 mile range. Air Force Ones (there are two of them). When the RFP for the new AF One was issued, in 1985, twin-engine, long haul airplanes with ETOPS were still early in their service, eliminating the prospect for the twin-engine Boeing 767. The Secret Service was said to want more than two engines for safety.
But today, twin-engine ETOPS airplanes and the engines are incredibly reliable. The Boeing 777-300ER has a dispatch reliability second to none as far as we can tell and the GE90 engines that power it are superb. Could the Secret Service and USAF accept a 777-300ER bid? (We doubt the Secret Service or the USAF would accept the new, unproven 9X as Air Force One.)
The 777 certainly doesn’t have the panache of the 747, but operationally there certainly is nothing wrong with the airplane and engines and there is no question about the line being open to 2020 or even somewhat beyond.
The Air Force also needs to replace the 747-200 that serves as the flying command post for the President and the top military brass. This is the white 747 that was spotted over Washington (DC) on 9/11/2001, the day America came under airborne attack by Al Qaeda. But the news articles don’t mention replacing this aircraft.