Boeing finally found another customer for the beleaguered 747-8i program. This new variant of the 747, using new technology engines also used on the 787, plus a new wing and new systems, provides economic improvements over the existing 747-400 to better compete with the A380. The key question is whether this is a bellwether order to be followed by additional commercial success, or fills a replacement need for some existing aircraft and not much more.
Joining Lufthansa and Korean Air, Air China ordered five of the passenger model, bringing the total on order to 38 — as only 33 orders were taken over the last five years. By contrast, the Airbus has garnered 244 orders for its competing, larger A380.
Asia is the largest market for wide body aircraft, and this order for Boeing is significant in Boeing countering Airbus strong presence with the A380 in the region. At this writing, the first A380 destined for China are under final assembly at Airbus facilities in Toulouse, France.
The key for Boeing is whether this order will be followed with other orders from Chinese airlines, or whether the -8i will remain well behind the -8F freighter version in orders. Currently, the program remains unprofitable overall, and needs substantial new orders to reach the break-even point.
Time will tell, but if another order is received by the Paris Air Show, a program that to date has been without momentum could at least get to the point of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. If the order flow goes silent again, however, this order could be viewed as an anomaly rather than a bell weather. The next few months will be critical if Boeing is going to change the lack of momentum on the 747-8i program.