Boeing appears to have come around to the thinking that the 747 program has seen its best days in sales with its announcement of a cut in the production rate. While the industry has a relentless urge to seek better economics, and appears to have spurned four engined airplanes as a result, let’s spare a moment to reflect on the original Jumbo Jet. It is simply one of the most iconic aircraft made, and its history is still being written.
The latest version, the 747-8 is perhaps the best looking – it is longer than earlier models and has graceful lines few aircraft can match. Since its inception, there have been 21 different versions of the Boeing 747 produced. The chart below that demonstrates how successful this program has been.
The chart above is not easy to read, so here is a different summary, illustrating the various models produced. The 747-400 and 747-200B are by far the most popular models of a platform the 747 has been impressively flexible – with passenger aircraft, freighter, VVIP and military versions built.
The decline in 747 popularity coincides with the arrival of the 777-300ER, as shown in the following chart. Orders for the 747 slowed while the new 777 model gained very strong acceptance. It quickly became clear that the 777-300ER could perform missions more cost-effectively on routes that airlines had been using the 747. The Japanese, for example, were quick to switch from 747-400s to the 777-300ER.
There are still 50 747-8s on order. Boeing bravely says it will continue to invest in the program. While it will continue to improve its economics, truthfully the program is past its prime. When compared with the 737, which has about an equally long history and remains highly effective as a competitor in its category, them decline of the slightly younger 747 comes into focus.
Is the VLA category the problem? Airbus and Boeing have very different views on this. Airbus is more positive and makes a compelling argument about mega cities and the routes that connect them. Boeing sees more route fragmentation. Both cite data to support their positions – and both are right, depending on individual markets.
The 747 does not carry enough people compared to the A380. Boeing speaks of the 747-8I are a 467-seater. But Lufthansa only seats 362, which is 22% less. Korean Air, another 747-8I customer Korean Air seats 365 on the 747-400 and is unlikely to even put 400 seats in its -8Is when they get delivered. Its A380s only seat 407 compared to 550 at other airlines. After the Dubai air show when we expect to see hundreds of orders for the 777X, the eclipsing of the 747 by the 777 will be even more manifest.
Or is it because the aircraft uses four rather than two engines, and engine maintenance costs skew economics unfavorably when two engine competitors of nearly the same size are available?
The freight market is currently struggling, but the 747-8 really shines as a freighter. It has no true competitors. This segment is likely to be its future and why Boeing will continue to invest in the program in the near term. But it is also clear that the end of an iconic program is now approaching. But with the last of the new models being delivered, and older -400s being converted to freighters, we will continue to see the venerable 747 for many years — it’s going to be a long good bye.