Boeing goes long with new 747-8 jet

February 15th, 2011 by Staff — That may not sound like much. But it’s the length added to Boeing’s (BA) newest version of its 747 jumbo jet — the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental commercial passenger jet — unveiled here Sunday as a crowd of several thousand people waved red and white thundersticks to the blare of rock music.
The added length, 18.3 feet to be precise, makes the 747-8 the longest jetliner in the world.
The new Intercontinental has other distinguishing features: Its tell-tale hump, which covers double-deck seating inside, stretches 13.3 feet longer than before. Its redesigned wings, which begin near the base of the fuselage and sweep upward as they slope away from the cabin, give it the appearance of a soaring bird.
The redesigned plane gives passengers larger windows and reconfigured overhead storage bins to hold more bags than before.
But Boeing’s “stretch” version of the 747 is not so much about size as important strategic objectives for the company.
It’s about trying to keep Boeing, which introduced the phrase “jumbo jet” into aviation lexicon with its first 747 more than 40 years ago, in the game of manufacturing the world’s biggest class of passenger jets against competition from European rival Airbus and its giant A380.
“There’s no question that we were coming to a decision that it was either going to be close or near the end of the line for the airplane … or we had to figure out something new,” says Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
The Intercontinental’s debut also represents Boeing’s bid to re-establish itself as the world’s pre-eminent maker of passenger jets at a time its prestige has been dented by its struggles to deliver its breakthrough jet: the revolutionary 787 Dreamliner that’s made mostly from lightweight composites.
And it comes as the U.S. aircraft manufacturer faces competition not just from Airbus but from other parts of the world.
“Bringing something new to market is a boost to the company’s image,” says veteran aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Virginia-based Teal Group aerospace analysis firm. “It has kind of a flagship role for the company, too. To be able to efficiently build and upgrade a legacy product that’s been around as an icon since 1969, there’s value in that beyond just money. There’s equity in that.”
New word in the lexicon
Boeing revolutionized air travel when it made its maiden 747 flight on Feb. 9, 1969. Boeing dubbed the jet the “Queen of the Skies.” But it was the term “jumbo jet” that stuck to the big, partially double-decked plane, then to a class of wide-body giants that fly a large number of passengers long distances across the globe.
Boeing held the position as the world’s dominant manufacturer of long-haul, wide-body jets until last decade, when Airbus increased the competition in the market.
With its unveiling of the massive A380 in 2005, Airbus stole the title of “world’s biggest passenger jet” — a title it still holds even with the introduction of the Intercontinental on Sunday. And it introduced the term “superjumbo jet.”
The European plane maker also competed with Boeing’s popular, but smaller, 777 wide-body by increasingly matching or raising seating and technology on its family of A340 models, prompting each planemaker to respond to the other’s developments.
The growing passenger capacity and technological capabilities of the 777s and A340s helped to make the Boeing 747 less relevant as the decade moved on. The Boeing 777-300ER, for instance, carries about 365 passengers, while the 747-400 “jumbo jet” carries about 416.
Tinseth acknowledges that the one-upsmanship developments led to talk that the 747′s days as a passenger jet could be numbered and that Boeing could end up manufacturing the giant plane strictly as a cargo carrier.
“I think that’s fair to say,” he says. “We really got in this position that the 747 was starting to become only a freighter.”
Tinseth says the new 747-8I — which has 467 seats in a typical layout — will fill a niche “halfway in between” what the 777-300ER and similar Airbus A340 models carry, and the 525 passengers that the giant Airbus A380 carries in a typical configuration. “There’s that sweet spot in the market, or that hole, that our competition left in the market,” he says. “You know, our (747-800) airplane fits really nice.”
The two airlines that have put in orders for the new plane — Germany’s Lufthansa and Korean Air— agree that the 747-8I fills a market niche.
Lufthansa, which has ordered 20 of the jets, with the first to be delivered next year, says the new planes will replace its older 747s and allow it to go to bigger planes on international routes where demand is growing.
Korean Air, which has ordered five planes, similarly says the plane’s seating capacity gives the airlines flexibility to “cover a variety of different networks and regions.”
Still in the process
The rollout of the Intercontinental helps restore some luster to Boeing’s image. The company has faced repeated setbacks in being able to deliver its long-anticipated 787 Dreamliner, which has prompted some airlines to second-guess their orders to buy them.
The Dreamliner, now more than three years overdue because of production problems, is made largely from composite material rather than aluminum. As a result, it’s lighter and will burn less fuel, making it environmentally and financially friendlier for airlines.
Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney has claimed it will be “the way planes are going to be built for the next 80 years.”
But it has to be proven airworthy and delivered to customers first, which Boeing now says will be in the third quarter of this year.
Aviation analyst Aboulafia says the 747 Intercontinental’s unveiling is a “boost to the company’s image.” However, he says, the boost may be more “psychological than anything else” because of the “looming shadow” of Boeing’s problems with the 787 Dreamliner.
“There were never any doubts about the 747-8′s technical success, whereas there’s a lot we don’t know about the 787′s performance,” he says. “That’s a much bigger issue.”
Though the Dreamliner has been an object of frustration at the company, it’s also been the source of some innovation incorporated into the reinvention of the 747.
The new wing design, engines, larger windows and storage bins on the 747-8 Intercontinental came from developing the 787 Dreamliner.
“The technology we developed on the 787 really were the key enablers to what we could do on the 747-8,” Tinseth says.
Aboulafia says the innovation incorporated into the Intercontinental should keep the 747 model out of the passenger jet graveyard.
“I think it definitely helps extend (Boeing’s 747) franchise,” Aboulafia says. “It’s pretty impressive: The engines are newer than on the A380. A lot of the systems are newer. And the airframe is lighter. This could be a better plane.”
Even with the 747-8I’s new bells, whistles and 18 feet of length, Airbus’ A380 will retain the title of biggest passenger jet in the skies.
The A380 has double-deck seating throughout its fuselage. The 747-8′s second floor runs only as long as its signature hump — now about 35% of the plane’s length.
Other competitors step up
The introduction of the Intercontinental comes as Boeing and Airbus seek to stave off a threat of new competition in producing jet aircraft for the world’s major airlines.
Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer, which traditionally have made smaller regional jets, are beginning to produce bigger jets — some with more than 100 seats, which threaten to provide competition for Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ A320 series. Plans are underway elsewhere, including state-backed efforts in Russia and China, to build similar passenger jets with around 100 seats.
For now, though, the battle for the top remains between Boeing and Airbus.
Industry observers watch and analyze the companies’ annual sales figures in a way that makes their rivalry seem like a competition, as though the jetmakers are playing the World Series for plane sales.
Airbus, partly buoyed by A380 orders, overtook Boeing as the world’s top maker of commercial jets in 2008. Airbus maintained that lead through last year, as it reported 574 orders for commercial planes in 2010 compared with Boeing’s 530.
The Intercontinental won’t thrust Boeing back to the lead. The market for the giant jets isn’t big enough. “You are never going to get the bulk of your business from this part of the market,” analyst Aboulafia says.
In addition to the 25 orders Boeing has from Lufthansa and Korean Air, Boeing says it has orders for just eight more 747-8Is from “VIP” individuals and firms that the company won’t identify.
“Would we love to have more (orders)? Absolutely,” says Elizabeth Lund, deputy program manager for the plane. “That said … we really do believe this aircraft is going to sell and sell well.”

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