Boeing to cut production rate for 747-8

It’s hard for an aerohead to not feel sad upon hearing more news that points to the end of the line for the Boeing 747 — the airplane that launched Boeing’s presence in Everett.

The company today said it will cut the production rate for the revamped 747-8 from 1.75 per month to 1.5 per month starting in 2014. That’s just 18 per year. Boeing builds more than twice that many 737s in a month.

In a news release, Eric Lindblad, vice president and general manager of the 747, said the lower production rate “doesn’t change our confidence in the 747-8 or our commitment to the program.”

The company certainly hasn’t given up promoting the plane. Recently Boeing posted and promoted prominently a video about how well Lufthansa, one of the few airlines to buy it, loves the 747-8 Intercontinental, the passenger version.

But the fact is there is little demand for the 747-8 — 107 orders in all since 2005, with 56 of those delivered. And most of the planes ordered are for cargo (67) or executive use (at least nine).

It’s a beautiful plane, but it has four engines at a time when airlines want only two, for the sake of fuel efficiency, and the passenger capacity is greater than most carriers need. The sweet spot for big airplanes is the slightly smaller-capacity 777.

So what about cargo? Boeing is optimistic about that, saying in the news release that “the company expects long-term average growth in the air cargo market to begin returning in 2014, and forecasts global demand for 760 large airplanes (such as the 747-8) over the next 20 years, valued at $280 billion.”

Obviously, unless that demand actually materializes, the production rate will be minimal. And the end might be near. Writes Issaquah-based aviation analyst Scott Hamilton:

“The USAF wants to replace its two Air Force One 747-200s in 2021. We think Boeing will be hard-pressed to keep the line alive until then. The official launch of the Boeing 777X, and the widely expected order for the larger 9X version at the Dubai Air Show next month, will make it that much more difficult for Boeing to sell the airplane.”

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