A revolutionary 747

EVERETT — When the Boeing Co.’s 747-8 takes to the skies today, it brings with it more than 40 years of history.

The original jumbo jet, the 747-100, brought Boeing to Everett. It’s the reason Snohomish County is home to the world’s largest building and why residents here identify with names like the Incredibles, the group that assembled the first 747 as the building went up around them, and Joe Sutter, the chief engineer of the jet that changed commercial aviation. More than a dozen models later, Boeing’s new 747-8 Freighter will take flight just one day shy of the 41st anniversary of the flight of the first 747-100, named the City of Everett.

But it’s the image of a 40-year-old airplane that Boeing wants to shake.

“That is not really accurate,” said Mohammad “Mo” Yahyavi, vice president and general manager of the 747 program.

The technology on the 747-8 is about 10 years newer than that of Airbus’ superjumbo A380, Yahyavi said. And Boeing has incorporated many of the advances on the 747-8 that the company created for its fast-selling 787 Dreamliner, hence the “-8.”

Yahyavi selected the engines for the 747-8 while serving in Boeing’s propulsions unit. The new General Electric GEnx-2B engines, similar to those on the 787, have been created not only to cut fuel consumption but also to reduce maintenance costs for airlines. Equipped with noise-suffocating chevrons and nacelles, or covers, the Genx-2Bs will provide for quieter takeoffs and landings.

Boeing also redesigned the 747’s wing to reduce drag during flight. Together with the engine changes, Boeing estimates the 747-8 freighter is 16 percent more fuel-efficient than the 747-400 cargo jet while able to carry 16 percent more cargo.

For those reasons, Boeing compares its 747-8 to a Porsche 911. The sports car made its debut in 1964; the 747-100 went into commercial service in 1970.

“You wouldn’t call that an old car,” Yahyavi said.

Yahyavi takes seriously his place in 747 legend, keeping in touch with Sutter, who is considered the father of the 747-100.

“I’m proud to be part of this 747 program,” Yahyavi said.

Yahyavi grew up in Iran but came to United States to pursue graduate studies in aeronautical engineering. He joined Boeing in 1980 and has worked on the 757, 767 and 747-400 programs. Most recently, Yahyavi oversaw the late stages of Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon, the submarine hunter.

Boeing transferred Yahyavi in early 2009 to the 747-8, shortly after announcing a delay to the jumbo jet program. The 747-8 is running about a year behind schedule due in part to depleted engineering resources caused by problems with Boeing’s 787.

In 2009, Boeing acknowledged that the 747-8 was no longer profitable because of extra expenses and a dearth of orders. Last week, Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president of marketing for commercial airplanes, acknowledged it has a tough road ahead to return to profitability.

“We are in a forward loss situation (with the 747-8). It doesn’t mean we will not make profits, but we’ll have a huge challenge to get there,” Tinseth told Dow Jones Newswires.

For his part, Yahyavi wants to cut production costs by introducing on the 747 line some of the lean manufacturing practices that have been proven effective on Boeing’s 737 and 777 production lines.

But how well will the 747-8 sell? The answer depends on which analyst or forecaster you choose. But even Boeing and Airbus seem to agree on one thing: the long-term demand for large aircraft has declined since the 747-8 and A380 were launched.

Boeing’s 747-8 freighter has 76 orders. Boeing expects to deliver the first later this year to Cargolux.

“We’ll grow,” Yahyavi said.

The 747-8 freighter enters the market as cargo traffic comes off its steepest decline in history — down 10 percent in 2009 compared with the previous year, according to the International Air Transport Association. And, for lack of demand, airlines increasingly are retiring old 747s to the airplane graveyards in the Arizona desert.

Yahyavi is equally upbeat about the passenger version, dubbed the Intercontinental. The 747-8 passenger jet, which is set to enter service in late 2011, has won only 32 orders.

“We’ve got good opportunity,” Yahyavi said.

But analysts with AirInsight recently concluded otherwise, saying the new Intercontinental is too small to compete with Airbus’ A380 and too large to contend with Airbus’ new A350-1000 or even Boeing’s 777-300ER.

“The 747-8 (passenger model) appears to be joining the failed Airbus A340 as a four-engine aircraft in a two-engine market. … the 747-8 is dead as a passenger aircraft before it hits the market, and will be a market failure however technically proficient the airplane proves to be,” the AirInsight analysts wrote.

Despite what the analysts say, Boeing’s Yahyavi is focused on the 747-8’s future.

“I get to be a part of keeping this airplane going another 40 years,” Yahyavi said.

747-8 first flight

Departure: 10 a.m. today, depending on weather and preflight tests

Location: Everett’s Paine Field, for both takeoff and landing

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