Not only is Boeing abandoning the 747 platform, continuing its trend in recent years of turning away customers seeking to purchase the iconic widebody, the aerospace giant has also declined an offer to acquire the program, Cargo Facts has learned.
Efforts to save the 747-8 have failed, requiring the air cargo industry to face the reality that it is no longer possible to purchase a factory-built, nose-loading freighter. With a backlog of fifteen units and a production rate of six units per year, the final 747-8F will be delivered in 2022, absent any changes to delivery schedules.
A consortium of investors familiar with the long-term dynamics of the air cargo market is believed to have approached Boeing earlier this year with an offer to acquire production rights for the 747 program. The deal, which would have kept the 747-8 in production, was rebuffed by Boeing leadership, a source familiar with the proposal told Cargo Facts.
Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.
It is today not possible to place an order for a new-build freighter larger than the 100-tonne 777F, which is now Boeing’s focus for the large widebody freighter segment. Boeing formally shuttered its own 747-400F passenger-to-freighter conversion program in 2016, and has since hinted the production 747-8F too would soon be sunsetted.
One twist brought about by the capacity crunch induced by the COVID-19 pandemic is that additional 747-400 conversions may still be in the cards. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) continues to offer a conversion program for the platform. Although the company last converted a 747-400 Combi to full-freighter configuration in 2017, it’s too early to call the curtain closed on the program, according to Rafi Matalon, senior director and general manager of marketing at IAI.
By 2021, “we will convert at least one 747-400,” said Matalon, referring to emerging sources of demand for freighter lift globally, but particularly in Russia.
The large numbers of 747-400s released by airlines such as British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, and Virgin Atlantic, might improve feedstock availability, but many of these aircraft could end up being scrapped.
While the 747-400 is unlikely to be converted in large numbers, IAI’s next widebody bet is on a new passenger-to-freighter conversion program based on the 777-300ER, the 777-300ERSF. The program’s conformity aircraft was recently inducted for conversion at the company’s Tel Aviv (TLV) facility, and certification is expected in 2022.
Unlike its 747-400F, Boeing has not explicitly acknowledged that the 747-8 is nearing the end of the line. The company has, however, made subtle changes to how it characterizes the program in its financial filings. In a death knell first reported by Bloomberg, gone from the company’s most recent 10-Q is any mention that the company continues to “evaluate the viability” of the program. Previous quarterly filings had offered a glimmer of hope the program could continue. Excluding UPS’ reshuffle in May to take up the unit previously destined for AirBridgeCargo (ABC) (63784), Boeing’s last order had come from AirBridgeCargo’s parent, Volga-Dnepr, in 2018.
While the exact status of the 747-8F program had been unclear subsequent to that, at least publicly, Cargo Facts understands that Boeing has in the last couple of years repeatedly turned down customers seeking to place new orders for the aircraft.
When Triumph Group, the sole manufacturer of 747 fuselage sections, began selling off its plant equipment late last year, it provided an indication of the direction in which the program was headed. Still, one could have argued that Boeing could have acquired the equipment and could have restarted production if a sufficiently large order came through, leaving aside the possibility of that happening.
Even though the pandemic has brought several freighter-converted 747-400Fs out of storage, it remains to be seen how much longer the extra lift will be called for, and therefore how much need there is for additional conversions. We note too that a few 747-400Fs remain parked, including:
- Two China Airlines -400Fs (30760 and 30761), in Victorville (VCV) since 2012
- One Asiana Airlines -400BDSF (25452), in VCV since 2017
- One Atlas Air -400BDSF (27062), in Marana (MZJ) since December 2019
- Two ex-ABC -400Fs (36784 and 36785), in Teruel (TEV) since May 2020
Meanwhile, Aquiline International told Cargo Facts that, due to a decline in demand, it had recently sold the ex-Air Cargo Global -400BDSF (24311) that had been grounded in Karaganda, Kazakhstan (KGF) since mid-December. Aquiline declined to disclose the new owner but the aircraft has since been registered in Burundi and carried COVID-19 supplies from China to Brazil via Africa in early July.