The struggling Boeing 747-8

News reports that Boeing is promoting the 747-8I to Emirates Airlines prompted some to leap to conclusions that the struggling program is about to get a sorely needed shot in the arm. We don’t think so.

For one thing, Emirates president Tim Clark immediately poured cold water on the idea. In the process, in the same report, he said the 747-8 can’t match the Airbus A380 economics.

For another thing, we believe Emirates is trending toward a two-aircraft type fleet for which there is no room for a third–whether it is the Airbus A350 or the 747-8I. It’s clear the Emirates business model is built around the A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER/777X.

While there are going to be significant differences between the 777 Classic and the 777X, the latter is essentially a derivative of the former (Boeing is seeking regulatory certification under the existing 777 Type Certificate; a decision from the Federal Aviation Administration is pending).

The new 777-9X has seat mile costs that matches the somewhat larger 747-8I, according to one airline fleet planner we spoke with. Our own analysis also doesn’t support the economic arguments cited in favor of a 747-8I compared with the 777-9 or the A380, when an apples-to-apples seating configuration floor plan is assumed. Our numbers give the 777-9 a substantial advantage over the 747-8.

There are few routes between today’s 777-300ER and the A380 that fit for the 747-8 and fewer still between the 777-9 and the A380. We think it unlikely Clark will buy a small number of 747-8s to fill this narrow niche.

Red and Blue are 747-8 firm orders and deliveries scheduled this year and next. Beginning in 2016, deliveries drop off the cliff. Maintaining the current production rate of 18/yr requires converting 100% of the options and LOIs and obtaining new orders.

Red and Blue are 747-8 firm orders and deliveries scheduled this year and next. Beginning in 2016, deliveries drop off the cliff. Maintaining the current production rate of 18/yr requires converting 100% of the options and LOIs and obtaining new orders.

For Boeing, any potential order from Emirates would have to be large, not small, to solve its backlog problem. The backlog is so thin that we believe Boeing will be forced to reduce an already low production rate in the very near future. Deliveries peak next year and drop off a cliff in 2016, even if all options and letters of intent were converted–a prospect will consider unlikely. A handful of orders won’t be enough to maintain rates at the current 18/yr or 1.5/mo.


46 Comments on “The struggling Boeing 747-8

    • Thing is that Boeing has said quite a few times that they’re in talks with people, are very confident of securing additional orders, etc. At this point, I’m taking a “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach to prospective 747-8 orders, to be honest, particularly for the 747-8i.
      As Scott outlined above, it fits a very small niche even today – a niche that’s getting even smaller with the arrival of the 777-9.

  1. Can Boeing still count on a 3 X B-747-8I order from the USAF for the AF-1 replacement? What about an E-4B replacement, there are 4 of them. Also the JSDAF is looking to replace its two B-747-400s used for Japan’s AF-1. The top contenders are the B-747-8I and the B-777-300ER, and possibly the A-350-900, for deliveries to begin in 2018.

    • I bet the A380 is a serious contender for the Japanese governement 747 replacement. And for the Chinese governement. And Saudi governement and Russian?

    • Flightglobal also highlights the perils facing the programme.
      Key points:
      * Boeing tries to find another 500nm of range
      ** Most issues have been resolved around this – aerodynamic tweaks and 7% increase in MTOW (to 472t)
      ** Chief issue is landing gear’s ability to absorb higher weight required for extended range variant
      * Focus on pax variant for now (in another shift – initially, focus was pax, then freighter, now back to pax again), freighter market not expected to rebound for another two years

      • You can put whatever amount of lipstick on a pig but it still remains a pig.

  2. I guess a 747-8i carrries more seats and a hole lot more cargo on a typical 6000NM ETOPS mission then a big twin. (->raw payload weight, not the deceptive cargo volume). Capacity is not as unimportant as many often assume.. ask any fleet/ network planner.

    • Lufthansa’s fleet has the following aircraft seating (First/Businesses/Economy (sum)):

      A340-600: 8 / 56 / 229 (293)
      747-400: 8 / 66 / 270 (344)
      747-8i: 8 / 92 / 262 (362)
      747-8i: 8 / 80 / 298 (386)
      A380: 8 / 98 / 420 (526)

      Comparable 777 seating:
      KAL 777-300ER: 8 / 56 / 227 (291)
      or 777X9 with 4 more rows (+36): 327

      Lufthansa’s A380 routes:
      New York
      San Francisco

      Lufthansa’s B747-8i routes:
      Washington D.C.
      Los Angeles
      Hong Kong
      Mexico City
      Sao Paulo

    • Of course capacity matters, but the key is finding the right plane for the mission …ask any fleet/network planner.

  3. Any USAF acquisition would probably have to wait until well past the next presidential election. The AF1 birds have comparatively low hours, and don’t really need to be replaced in the next 3-5 years in any case, though the E-4 models are ancient. I would expect this role could now easily be filled by a twin however (electronics have shrunk quite a bit over the past 40 years since they were designed.) The 707-based E-10 was to have led to their retirement already.

    In any case both programs would only amount to a 8 or so frames, maximum, procured at government speed. I suspect the line will close by the end of 2016.

      • Once they give up the sales campaign in a year or so they’ll just finish out the line a bit faster, is my suspicion. Maybe you are right, they’ll drag on until 2017 with actual production.

      • Well, they have five freighter orders for deliveries in 2017, according to Scott’s table above, plus 7 in 2016. I do expect some additional orders, but I also do expect the line to close before 2020, probably around 2018.

  4. “For another thing, we believe Emirates is trending toward a two-aircraft type fleet for which there is no room for a third–whether it is the Airbus A350 or the 747-8I. It’s clear the Emirates business model is built around the A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER/777X.”

    I believe EK will indeed need a “third-wheeler”. I see the B77X as too large for a “regional” plane. Yes, EK does to a certain extent have a “regional feeder” in FlyDubai but IMHO EK will need a 275-320 pax 3000nm-5000nm plane.

    Be it the B787-10 or the A33XNEO.

    I do remember reading years ago that EK’s Clark would really much like the B787-10X. We’ll see.

  5. Story request: Will the new Air Force 1’s be the last 747’s built? or will the Air Force opt for 777-9X’s?

    • AF1 has a requirement of 4 engines for reliability purposes. This comes from the Secret Service, not the AF. It is highly unlikely that the SS would waive this requirement, so the only options are A380 or B7478i.

      • There is another option: A340!

        Lufthansa has a big fleet of A340-300 or -600. German air force bought two used A340-300 for VIP use for German government.

        – 16+01 „Konrad Adenauer“, Airbus A340-313X, S/N 274, former D-AIGR Lufthansa „Leipzig“
        – 16+02 „Theodor Heuss“, Airbus A340-313X, S/N 355, former D-AIFB Lufthansa „Gummersbach“

        There is still enough flight time in these frames due to the rare use as government VIP transport later on. Maybe Airbus won’t offer an aircraft for AF1 but Lufthansa could also offer something.

        Nice picture: “1.500th”

        • The A-340 will not be considered as it is no longer in production. The SS would want to monitor every nut and bolt during assembly, so used aircraft are out of the question for security reasons. The Trent-556 engines (of the -600IGW model) are not as efficient, nor as powerful as the B-747-8’s GEnx-2B62s. Then there is the question of how long will the A-343/5/6 be supportable, and can it support the systems the USAF, WH, and SS require {i.e. huge electrical system}? I doubt the A-340-300/-600 would be considered with its poor runway performance, over 10,200′ on a standard day, at sea level, MTOW. The B-747-8, under the same conditions uses about 9,000′-9,200′. Then there is the issue of interior floor space. The A-346 has about 3,400 sq. ft. of floor space in the cabin. The B-748 has over 5,000 sq. ft. with the upper deck, or 4,100 sq. ft. without it. I have not counted the floor space in the lower deck cargo compartments (which on the current VC-25As is used inflight and also has airstairs going into the cargo compartment {a unique feature on the VC-25 is cargo doors on both sides of the airplane}). The B-748 has even more floor space than the current B-742/VC-25s do (about 4,200 sq. ft. not counting the cargo holds).

        • That implies that Boeing also could not build frames now for later delivery to the Air Force.

          Secret Service may yet have to settle for a twin if the A380 is the only quad in production when they get around to placing the order …

          • The order and contract will be let by the Air Force, not the SS. The Secret Service will have input and change authority, as will the White House.

  6. The US Secret Service insists on four engine for the next AF!. Never mind all the statistics and analysis – AF1 must have four engines. Airbus has already bowed out, so the 747-8I is it.

    For Boeing to continue its tradition of being the AF! provider, their only choice may be to speculatively build three “green” [empty shell inside] airplanes and store them very securely somewhere. Then wait for Congress to appropriate the money for the USAF to buy them.

    Once the airplanes [plus spares] have been built, 747 production will end. Since RA001’s rollout in September 1968, it will have been nearly 50 years and more than 1,500 airplanes. Lots to be proud of there

    [747-100 flight test engineer, 1967-1970]

  7. My guess is AF1 will not be a twin. In the event of an engine failure on an ETOPS flight, a twin would have to land at the next opportunity, which might not be a place AF1 would really like to use.

  8. Great news for Boeing on the 787 program! First 787-9 contractually delivered to ANZ today. The plane will fly out next week.

    It was delivered on time (not counting 787-8 delays), under weight, ETOPS 330 ready, and with RR engines that are PIP’d to about 1% of original spec. The GE powered -9 will be even better, as the PIP’s bring the SFC to the original spec. It will be very interesting to see how the HLFC system on the empennage performs over the long run.

    • 1800 kg of fuel does not seem like a lot to me. Also, 8300 nm is not really a range reduction, it is right in the middle of the 8000 – 8500 nm range that was previously given.

    • FlightGlobals seat count doesnt seem right. 787-9 seat count is 280. While Air NZ, a long haul carrier shows seat plans on its 787-9 of 302 seats. Thats with lie flat business, premium economy and economy classes

  9. Emirates has said they are opening up the slot to A350 bids and 787, maybe Clark just wants a better deal?

    Jun. 24, 2014 |

    Same 70 aircraft was quoted.

    It does not look like 747-8 is in the mix.

    If the freight market picks up then maybe it goes obn. Hate to see it go, I thought it was too little too late on the pax version and not enough range. Lesson that you can rack back but you can’t add and Emirates needed the range. Big mistake.

    I think its the nicest looking aircraft flying, particularly the freighter version.

    A380 looks to go on longer but it sure is not good looking.

    • “[…] maybe Clark just wants a better deal?”
      Maybe the A330NEO is the better deal for Emirates to add some aircraft with less capacity to the bigger A380 and 777. Dubai to Auckland or Santiago de Chile may work with an A330-200NEO.

      A380: 500 seats
      777: 400 seats
      A330: 300 seats

  10. Both the big four engine planes are struggling ; -8 as a freighter still has a chance when the cargo market comes back. -8I’s success criteria is not orders but what it does to 380 pricing ; we may not know the answer to that. That said, 380 is a better plane than -8 in terms of economics when fully loaded , at least for the fastest growing airline.

  11. Airbus has now sorted out most issues of the A380. Rate hangs at roughly 24 a year, while the production chain could produce up to 48 a year. Means that slots are available, and airlines thinking about adding a VLA* could get a real one. The B747-8 is struggling by the fact that the VLA-market is much weaker than Airbus has expected (and closer to Boeing’s predictions!). This weak market cannot support two products. And there hardly anyone disagrees that the -8I is the weaker contender compared to the A380. As soon as Airbus commits to renewed investments into the A380 (new engine, 11-abreast, etc pp), new orders may come.

    Air Cargo continues to disappoint. I doubt it will ever recover. And if it does, orders probably go to the more flexible twins (B777F, A330F).

    *VLA: I don’t like this segmentizing based on rather abitrary figures like seat count, but A380 and B747-8I do indeed constitute their own segement, at least before the -9X@10abreast reaches the market.

  12. Airbus seemed to think that the VLJ 4 engine market was the same as when Boeing put the 747 into production originally mixed in with Hubris, ego and size envy thinking they were not a real player until they made the biggest.

    They ignored it was a whole new world of twins (which they launched in the first place). That Boeing cash cow was never going to transfer to Airbus, it was a one time event of history never to be repeated.

    If Airbus had put that into product development in the small wide aisle and large twins they could have eaten Boeing’s lunch as Boeing was asleep at the wheel

    That said, Boeing should have let it go and stuck to converting 747-400s and put that money into a new single aisle and maybe a split between the singles and the 787 (757RS though the question of real maket left is open)

    Well they could have done the 787 successfully in house and had Airbus on the ropes. Keep in mind that technically the 787 has been remarkably successful for such a huge leap, it was the lousy management and distributed production that broke down, with a few exceptions (none that were not overcome) the technology was solid. Billions upon billions blown

  13. In hindsight everything looks so simple …

    The A380 decision was debated by Boeing mostly because Boeing needed to justify its decision not to bet for the VLA market (which nobody doubted would be there, but opinions differed on its size). In the end, Boeing considered the VLA market to valuable to be left to Airbus and threw in the B747-8, which failed for several reasons despite being a very good aircraft:
    – it does not have a sufficient cost advantage
    – it does not offer the choices in cabin layout as the A380 does
    – it does not have this A380 hybris
    The B787 was a great leap for Boeing, but a minor in terms of performance: a reasonably updated A330 would have yielded 90-95% of the benefit, but without the high risk solutions in systems and materials (the B787 will probably have a number of “sole applicance” technologies … sort of the L1011 of the 21st century).

    As I said, in hindsight everything makes sense and was obvious.

  14. “The B787 was a great leap for Boeing, but a minor in terms of performance: a reasonably updated A330 would have yielded 90-95% of the benefit”

    Correct but didn’t have the/a A330. The 767 and 777 were to small / heavy for the key 250-300 seat with good cargo 2000-6000NM markets. The 7E7 specs closely mirrored the A330. Boeing talked to all airlines during their Sonic Cruiser campaign, correctly sensed the coming boom in that category (A330+787=1700 within a decade) and went for the 15-20% better A330 the airlines asked for.

  15. To me Boeing made a big mistake favouring one engine manufacturer instead of giving airlines a choice.
    The same mistake of they go down the same path with the next gen 777, airlines do not like being bullied and do like choices, yes some airlines like. Ge and others like Rolls Royce and until Boeing starts listening there aircraft will not sell.
    Somewhere there must have been a deal to exclude Roll Royce, even though they are developing a next gen engine themselves.

  16. So with all the chatter should one surmise that the 747-8 is going to die on the vine by 2017-2018 ?

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