Uncertain future for 747, ‘Queen of the Skies’

MUKILTEO — Executives and workers from Boeing and Air China raised champagne flutes and toasted each other and the new airplane hidden behind big, black curtains three stories tall.

Before the seared prawns were served for the delivery celebration dinner’s first course, the curtains pulled back for the big reveal — a new 747-8 Intercontinental passenger jet bathed in blue light and with Air China’s livery.

“‘The legend continues’ is absolutely an appropriate theme for tonight,” said John Wojick, head of sales for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

The 747 is certainly a legend, and with its characteristic hump, it likely is the world’s most iconic jetliner. It revolutionized long-haul flying, connecting farflung destinations with one flight.

It is the “Queen of the Skies,” Wojick said.

The man credited as the 747’s father, Joe Sutter, said he had no idea it would become so popular when it was designed in the late 1960s.

“We knew we designed a good airplane because we listened to what the customer said they wanted,” said Sutter, who was at the delivery ceremony at the Future of Flight &Boeing Tour on Monday.

“You have to listen to what the customer wants. You can’t use a bunch of hype in this business,” he said. “It’s too expensive to make a mistake in this business.”

Air China is only the second operator to take delivery of the 747’s latest passenger version, the “Dash 8.” The model was launched in 2005 and first flew in 2011.

The 747-8 is an extensive overhaul of its predecessor, the 747-400. Boeing stretched it, redesigned the wings and put new engines on it, among other changes. The upgrades improved fuel efficiency, added more cargo space and made it quieter.

The makeover brought 120 orders, mostly for freighters, and bought a few more years of life.

But industry analysts overwhelmingly say the 747’s reign will likely end in the next few years.

“Even the future for the 747 freighter is on the decline, because you have so much cargo being moved in the bellies of passenger planes,” said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst with Issaquah-based Leeham Co.

The decline of the 747 is in large part due to the success of Boeing’s 777 and 787, as well as Airbus’ A330 and A350.

Smaller, twin-aisle airplanes with two engines dominate the long-haul routes now.

“At end of the day, an airline wants the smallest plane possible that’s fuel efficient,” said David Strauss, an investment analyst who tracks Boeing for UBS.

“An airline needs to fill the airplane. It’s willing to go bigger if there’s a benefit on a cost-per-seat basis,” Strauss said. But “there’s a higher probability that they’re going to be able to fill a 300-seat airplane than a 400-seat airplane.”

Big airplanes give airlines less flexibility in shifting fleets, as well.

Air China has ordered seven 747-8s to replace 747-400s. It will put the new jumbo jet to work Oct. 11 on domestic routes from Beijing to Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shanghai. By the end of the year, the airline will shift the Dash 8 to the Beijing-Frankfurt route. Eventually, Air China will also fly new 747s from Beijing to Los Angeles and New York, said He Zhigang, managing director for Air China’s marketing department.

Boeing advertises the 747-8 as fitting 400 to 500 passengers, but Air China is offering spacious seating in a four-class configuration with room for 366 passengers: 12 in first class, 52 in business class, 36 in premium economy and 266 in economy. Even the cheapest seats will have 32 to 33 inches between rows, he said.

Boeing is upbeat about the airplane’s future.

“We don’t see any end in sight,” said Bruce Dickinson, general manager for Boeing’s 747 program.

The Chicago-based company has been improving the Dash 8 since it entered service. The improvements, including new engines from GE Aviation, have made it 3.5 percent more fuel-efficient than the first 747-8 delivered in 2012 and 16 percent more fuel-efficient over the 747-400.

“We have the only big freighter out there that can do what we do,” he said.

No one disputes that. Airbus initially offered an A380 freighter version that was later scrapped.

“I think they have a point, (the 747) is a niche aircraft,” said Michel Merluzeau, an analyst with Kirkland-based G2 Global Solutions.

But that niche won’t mean more than a handful of orders, he said.

Only 19 747-8s have been ordered since 2010.

The U.S. Air Force is expected to order in 2017 a replacement for the two 747-200 derivatives used as Air Force One.

After that, Boeing will have to make a decision: When will the Queen of the Skies land once and for all?

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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