If there is one aircraft type that symbolizes commercial aviation, it is Boeing’s 747. Since the first 747-100 entered service in January 1970 with Pan American World Airways, the manufacturer has delivered 1,522 747s in several variants, up to and including the current offering, the 747-8.
For ordinary citizens the world over, the 747’s iconic shape made it the instantly recognizable face of aviation. For travelers, it changed the flying experience. Further, unlike most other commercial aircraft, it was designed, from day one, with freight in mind. In the forty-six years since the first 747-100 left the ground in Pan Am livery, over 500 747 freighters have been built or converted.
This month, at the Farnborough Air Show, Boeing delivered its sixty-fifth 747-8 Freighter. Considering that the 747-8 entered service just five years ago, sixty-five freighter deliveries is actually an impressive total. And with orders for twenty-three more in Boeing’s backlog, one would think the manufacturer would be pleased – eighty-eight freighter orders is nothing to be unhappy about.
But now it appears that the 747’s days are numbered.
In fact, Boeing probably is pleased with the sales of the 747-8F. Unfortunately though, freighter sales cannot justify a commercial aircraft program on their own, and sales of the passenger variant, the 747-8 Intercontinental, have been – there is no other way to put this – horrible. Only eighty one units have been ordered, as carriers worldwide have abandoned four-engine passenger aircraft (Airbus is not doing very well with its A380, either), and Boeing has gradually cut back the production rate of the 747-8. Effective September, Boeing will drop to a rate of just six 747-8s per year.
Until recently, the manufacturer had said the production-rate cut was temporary. That it expected a resurgence of interest in the 747-8F in 2019, when carriers would begin replacing aging 747-400Fs with new -8Fs. But last week Boeing announced it had cancelled plans to boost production back up to twelve per year beginning in 2019. Citing “anticipated weakness in the air cargo market,” Boeing reduced its demand forecast for the 747-8F and said it would take an $814 million after-tax charge against the program in its second-quarter results.
And yesterday, with the publication of those second-quarter results, came this statement about the 747 program: “If we are unable to obtain sufficient orders and/or market, production and other risks cannot be mitigated, we could record additional losses that may be material, and it is reasonably possible that we could decide to end production of the 747.” [emphasis ours]
Is Boeing about to end production of the 747? We don’t know. Some resurgence of interest in the 747-8 freighter is possible, and we will examine that possibility in detail in the upcoming August issue of Cargo Facts. But after an almost fifty-year reign as “Queen of the Skies” the end is now truly in sight for the 747.