A 747-8F arithmetic lesson

A 7447-8F takes to the skies. Source: Boeing

Following its recent order for fourteen more 747-8Fs, UPS now accounts for almost all the 747-8Fs Boeing can produce over the next five years.

The first lessons in arithmetic most of us received involved apples. You probably remember something like this: “If you have three apples, and give one to me, how many apples are left?” If you answered “Two,” you received a gold star.

But, as the lessons progressed, the gold stars became more difficult to win. “If you have fourteen apples, and give one to me every day, how many will you still have by Friday.”

Not so easy. But then, apples are small, and easy to lose track of. If you thought you would have ten left on Friday, maybe it was because you dropped one. Or maybe you actually had fifteen to start with but just didn’t see one of them.

So, for today’s lesson, we will switch from apples to airplanes. Airplanes are much bigger than apples. And since we’re going to use 747-8 freighters, which are really, really big airplanes, they should be much easier to keep track of than apples.

Let’s start with the number “fourteen.” Why? Because UPS and Boeing recently published the news that UPS had firmed fourteen 747-8F options. Prior to that, Boeing had eleven firm 747-8F orders in its backlog: ten from UPS plus one from an unidentified customer.

So, how many orders does Boeing have now? 10 + 1 + 14 = 25.

Right, Boeing now has twenty-five firm orders in its 747-8F backlog.

That was easy, so we move on to the next part – the part that’s harder with apples, but might be easier with airplanes: If Boeing has a backlog of twenty-five 747-8F orders (which it says it has), and is building 747-8Fs at the rate of six per year (which it says it is doing), and if all twenty-four of UPS’ freighters are delivered by the end of 2022 (as UPS says they will be), how many apples are left for anyone else? Uh… freighters, that is.

Well, from now until the end of 2022 is five full years. If Boeing spreads the deliveries evenly through that period, and also delivers the one freighter to the unidentified customer, then our equation is: 25/5 = 5. That is, Boeing is committed to building five 747-8Fs per year to meet existing demand through 2022.

And, with a maximum build rate of six per year, that leaves just one per year available to anyone else.

But at this point, we have to introduce another number. Once again, that number is fourteen, but it is not the same fourteen we started with. This time it is the fourteen 747-8 freighters still remaining in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Boeing and Russia-based Volga-Dnepr Group (parent of AirBridgeCargo) at the Paris Air Show in 2015, and “confirmed” (but not “firmed”) at Farnborough the following year. That MoU was for twenty 747-8Fs, to be delivered by 2022. Six of the twenty have already been delivered, leaving fourteen still to come by 2022.

The arithmetic is getting a bit trickier here, but the equation we are looking for is: 14/5 = 2.8

That is, to complete the delivery of the fourteen remaining 747-8Fs for AirBridge by 2022, Boeing will have to produce them at the rate of almost three per year.

But since UPS and the unidentified customer are taking up all but one production slot every year…

Maybe if it was apples we were talking about, we could say “Oh, there are probably a couple of extras in the basket.” But it is not apples, it is 747-8 freighters, and, unless Boeing decides to up its production rate, there will be no extras in the basket.

Can Boeing up the production rate? To answer that question we have to leave the realm of arithmetic and enter the real world of commercial aircraft supply and demand. From an engineering perspective, Boeing could probably increase 747-8F production. And if a major carrier knocked on the door with a firm order for fifty, Boeing almost certainly would. But right now, the 747-8F shares a production line with the 767, and Boeing not only has a massive 767 backlog (sixty-three freighters for FedEx and close to two hundred refueling tankers for the US Air Force), but Cargo Facts believes carriers are knocking on the door to order more 767s.

So what happens to the fourteen freighters in the MoU? What happens to 747-8 production after 2022? What happens if anyone wants more?

Draw your own conclusions. All we can say is that this was a lot easier when it was just about  apples.

Interested in hearing more about Boeing’s outlook on widebody freighters like the 747-8F? Join us at this year’s Cargo Facts Asia, 23-25 April at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong in Shanghai where Boeing will speak on a panel about widebody freighter opportunities. For more information, or to register, visit www.cargofactsasia.com

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