Editor’s Note: This week marked the 5th year anniversary of the entry into service of the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental by launch customer Lufthansa. As of April 2017, there were 134 confirmed orders for the 747-8: 86 for the freighter version, and 48 for the Intercontinental passenger variant. Lufthansa, Air China, and Korean Air are the sole operators of the passenger type. Only two passenger variants, both for Korean Air, remain in the backlog.

This article is a reprint capturing the first revenue flight of the 747-8I published in the August 2012 issue of Airways.


FRANKFURT – The venerable Douglas DC-3 has been flying the skies for 75 years now. It’s a remarkable achievement, and though many continue to fly today, the DC-3 was basically obsolete by 1950 and relegated to second-tier airline services. The DC-3 production discontinued after only 10 years, in 1945 with 607 commercial examples and well over 10,000 versions of its military stable-mate, the C-47, produced.

In this modern era of swift technical change, and at times planned obsolescence, it is even more awe-inspiring that two current commercial airliner models are in their fifth decade of production and continue to be refined and re-launched, virtually guaranteeing their service into the middle of this century, possibly exceeding the length of service of the Douglas DC-3. They are both icons at the high and low-end capacity tiers of the market: The Boeing 737 and Boeing 747.

Often unknown, one airline has had a significant place in the launch of both models. Lufthansa (LH) was the launch customer of the Boeing 737-100 in 1967. The German carrier was also the launch customer for the Boeing 747 Freighter.

The famed German carrier’s experience with the Boeing 747 began over 42 years ago on April 26, 1970, when LH404 inaugurated Boeing 747-100 service, operating from Frankfurt to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. According to Lufthansa, their Jumbo inaugural flight featured that the first film ever to be shown on a 747 “Chariots of the Gods”, which had its world premiere on LH404.

Lufthansa CEO Herbert Culmann took delivery of the first Boeing 747-130 on March 9, 1970. Bearing the production number 12 and Lufthansa registration D-ABYA, it had space for 365 passengers, and its 19.3-meter tail assembly was taller than a five-story house. (Credits: Lufthansa)
Lufthansa CEO Herbert Culmann took delivery of the first Boeing 747-130 on March 9, 1970. Bearing the production number 12 and Lufthansa registration D-ABYA, it had space for 365 passengers, and its 19.3-meter tail assembly was taller than a five-story house. (Credits: Lufthansa)

Over 42 years ago, history repeated itself as Lufthansa went for a “Boeing Trifecta” as the launch customer for the latest generation, the 5th major generation (counting the 747SP) of the iconic jumbo jet, the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental.

Exactly one month to the day after the May 1, 2012, delivery of the first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental to Lufthansa, and 42 1/2 years after the inaugural of the first Boeing 747 (to Pan Am), the 747-8I took to the skies in revenue passenger service on June 1, 2012 as Lufthansa Flight 416, operating from Frankfurt to Washington’s Dulles International.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-BOARDING SCREEN

LH416 was under command of veteran 747 Captains Boje (Chief Pilot of Lufthansa’s 747’s fleet) and Carsten. I was a passenger on the flight as I had been on the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 revenue inaugural flights, hitting my own personal First Flight Trifecta.

The stories behind previous first flights have usually been odysseys in their own right, but this one is almost as remarkable for how unremarkable it was to secure space on the flight. Rather than create special press flights, strong demand, and worldwide auctions; Lufthansa opted to just put the plane into service to paying customers, substituting the new 747-8I for a Boeing 747-400 operating Frankfurt – Washington, D.C.

Lufthansa announced bookings via its US Twitter account on Friday, April 27th, as well as launching a very impressive iPad app and microsite dedicated to their new flagship. I immediately checked in with Lufthansa’s reservations and discovered there was ample seating availability; this would remain the case for quite a few weeks especially in the extended Premium Cabin.

The only hitch in the reservation process was that a seat map had not been uploaded to the reservation system, but that would follow a few days later. There were some seats blocked for the approximately 75 executives from Boeing and Lufthansa, VIPs, and members of the press, but the new aircraft would be expected to generate revenue from Day 1.

Perhaps this was due to Lufthansa’s four-decade experience with the 747, confidence in their new model as launch customer, the 30 days of pre-inaugural training, or the financial challenges the airline (as are many in Europe) is facing, or a combination of all. With its additional 4.5 more tons of cargo capacity, 30% lower noise footprint, lower cost per seat mile, 15% improvement in CO2 emissions, and double-digit increases in fuel efficiency over the 747-400, Lufthansa was keen to get their newest baby into operation.

Uniquely, this was the first flight of a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental with anything close to a full passenger load. The Airbus A380 and Boeing Dreamliner 787 had been exposed to shake-down flights with full planes of non-paying passengers aboard. Lufthansa actually operated the Airbus A380 test flight way back in 2006, five years before Lufthansa took delivery of its first A380.

It was with great anticipation that I boarded a Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 from Miami bound to Frankfurt for a trip that would clock in at less than 48 hours… sleep be damned! As a bonus, this would enable me the opportunity to compare the 747-400 to the new Dash 8 as well as the current generation LH Business Class Product to the new Flying V Business Class product.

The day before the launch flight on May 31, 2012, Lufthansa hosted a major press and VIP customer event at its Frankfurt Lufthansa Technik base. The 747-8 took center stage in the hangar, surrounded by different kiosks detailing Lufthansa’s service products. The event was quite elaborate replete with live musical performances, dance, and very dramatic lighting as the curtain was raised on Boeing’s new “Queen of the Skies”.

There was an Airbus A380 in the same hangar, ironically enough. The A380 is an amazing aircraft, but subjectively, the 747-8I eclipses its larger competitor in terms of beauty and profile. The A380, some 11.4 feet shorter than the 747, actually seemed smaller even though the A380 is a larger aircraft in terms of capacity, wingspan, and cabin width. At the event, I compared notes with Captain Boje, who commented that he wasn’t nervous at all about the next day’s flight when the eyes of the commercial airline world would be on him and his crew:

“I feel right at home on the 747-800. It’s similar to the 400 but more powerful, direct, and dynamic from a pilot’s point-of-view. Much like a new car, it just feels tighter.”

This is largely due to the 4 new 66,500-pound thrust GEnx-2B67 engines, limited fly-by-wire control of the flaps and ailerons, and completely new raked wing. He pointed out that at max speed of .92, the Intercontinental is the fastest commercial airliner in the sky.

Boje compared to qualifying to fly a 747-400 to the Dash 8 by saying “There are no serious differences compared to the 747-400 and if you drive an Audi A4 and you know how the gearbox works, you don’t have to take a new driving test in order to drive an A6.”

In fact, Lufthansa already had 40 crews cross-trained to fly both aircraft. The Dash 8 has the same type rating of the 747-400. There are three days of ground school, two days of flight panel work, followed by simulators, and four flights under supervision of a training Captain to be authorized to fly the Dash 8 on the line. This all happens in less than a week: a major selling point for Boeing.

Lufthansa chose to end the day’s events by flaunting its First Class Terminal, the only one of its kind in the world: a dedicated building, more like an executive jet FBO (fixed-based-operator) than a commercial airline terminal, which is worthy of a story of its own. A personal escort for First Class passengers, forty-year-old Scotch on offer at the bar, a four high-end dining room, a private cigar lounge, and a fleet of Porsche’s and Mercedes to whisk passengers directly to the plane should provide a clue as to the exclusivity of this operation.

Inauguration day arrived early the morning of Friday June 1, 2012. We checked in as we would for any other flight. In fact, there was no commemorative signage on display until we reached the Business Class Lounge of Gate 16 in Terminal 1. Following a brief ceremony, the Lufthansa flight quickly boarded via 2 jet bridges.

We were each handed the first of commemorative swag: small commemorative plaques.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-PLAQUE

Passengers entered midway between the 2 lower-deck Business Class cabins, which provided the opportunity to see the Chief Purser’s station, which is reminiscent of a concierge desk. This nice touch and open area à la Dreamliner creates a sophisticated ambience right from the start.

The excitement was certainly palpable but the event itself was businesslike and efficient. On the passenger manifest were 75 VIPs, Executives, and Press but revenue passengers, many who were unaware of the historic nature of the event, occupied the majority of the 344 seats. Most press, including myself at seat 85K, had assigned seating in the 32 seats extended upper-deck.

This intimate, but stretched upper deck, formerly the location of First Class is similar in size to a Boeing 737-700. The lower two Business Class cabins and one First Class cabin were completely occupied by revenue passengers and VIPs. The two economy cabins did have a scattering of empty seats. Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental seating capacity is a total of 344: 8 First, 92 Business (60 lower-deck and 32 upper-deck), and 262 in economy.

At this juncture, Lufthansa is not offering a premium economy product so as not to cannibalize their Business Class. Even though I had been on the plane before at the delivery event in Seattle and the press event the night before, seeing the 747-8I swarming with passengers and crew was an utterly different experience. The Dreamliner-inspired cabin still felt very airy and uncluttered with its enormous overhead binds, and higher arched ceilings.

Even though the cross-section of the Jumbo remains unchanged from before, the Dash 8 felt wider than its predecessor with new window bevel treatments and flatter sidewalls. At 250 feet, the Boeing 747-8I is the longest commercial airliner ever which was very apparent on the inside.

The overall atmosphere was due in no small part to the 787-inspired LED lighting. The lighting program opted by Lufthansa is not a disco full spectrum performance à la Dreamliner, but is set according to different scenarios and times of the day so that extreme contrast between bright and dark are avoided.

As this was a day flight, it was very subtle. During boarding, the cabin is lit relatively bright in a warm, slightly yellowish tone though it will be slightly different between day and night boarding. During take-off and landing, lighting is slightly modified again.

During night flights, it is dimmed to a dark blue cool temperature that is the minimal light to allow for maneuvering without disturbing passengers. If during the night, the toilets are opened in the darkened cabin, the lights inside only shine at full strength after the door is pulled inside. Lighting is adjusted for meal service as well. Rather than abrupt on/off and light/dark switches, the cabin illumination has subtle transition modes.

The real show began when D-ABYA, dubbed “Brandenburg” after the new but now delayed new Berlin Airport, pushed back at 10:07. Fraport officials obliged with a water cannon salute, and right-on-time DLH416 began its take-off roll from runway 25C. With the four GE nx-2B’s running at 80% thrust, the 747-8I lifted into the partly cloudy skies at 156 knots after a 5,400-foot roll.

As we became airborne at 10:24 local time, and with a less than full weight of 831,700 pounds, less than half of the 13,000-foot runway was used. Unlike many other inaugurals, there was no spontaneous applause just the quiet hum of the engines and subtle wind noise, accompanied by camera shutters. This was welcome so we could sample this very smooth and quiet take-off, nearly as quiet as the Airbus A380 but not quite.

Lufthansa’s two IFE cameras, known as Flyrobic mounted on the flight deck and under the fuselage provided welcome vantage points as the world’s newest Jumbo gracefully climbed into partly cloudy Frankfurt skies.

The captain announced our initial cruise of 32,000 feet, stepping up to 36,000 feet taking us over Northern Germany, the UK, Ireland, the North Atlantic up to 56 degrees north latitude, then coming ashore over Newfoundland and tracking down the Eastern U.S. Coast into Dulles. The 17 member cabin crew (one more than the 747-400) led by veteran Chief Purser Birgit Harrison, began cheerfully plying us with the first of our two delicious meals.

I opted for the Grilled Shrimp with Cilantro Pecan Gremolate, Pan-seared Chicken with Moroccan scented Tomato and Couscous, followed by a Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche Ice Cream. I paired it with a 2009 Columbia Valley Chardonnay. I needed to be alert as possible for the trip, so I forgo the continuous offerings of spirits and libations.

The hospitality extended to a continuous stream of souvenirs including commemorative luggage tags, amenity kits, VIP neck fobs, and even a 747-8 Intercontinental pin.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-SWAG

The upper-“press” deck was very convivial and a gathering of friends and luminaries in the industry such as noted aviation author Guy Norris, David Parker Brown, Mary Kirby, Max Kingsley Jones and Seth Miller. LH416 had become a reunion and flying “Tweet-Up”.

Other than the press briefings and cocktail-party atmosphere on the Upper “Press” Deck, most of the flight felt conventional in the lower 5 cabins, which is a testament to Lufthansa’s 40-year experience with the Boeing 747. Again, this was the first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental to boast anywhere close to a full passenger load. The cabin crew remarked that they had only spent a 1/2 day of training on the actual aircraft and that it is a relatively seamless move.

One of the more unusual features of the 747-8 Intercontinental is the mini-elevator to transport catering to the upper gallery since catering isn’t loaded on the upper-deck.

We noticed a very smooth, friendly service with three flight attendants on the upper-deck alone. As I roamed the various classes and talked to other passengers, everyone seemed quite impressed, though naturally, First Class passengers were most effusive in their praise, particularly with how quiet the plane was. I flew over in the Business Class section in the nose on the 747-400 and can vouch that the 747-8I is noticeably quiet.

First Class was relocated from the upper-deck to the nose on the Lower deck with extra sound insulation added in the curtains, side panels, and even on the floor resulting in what they boast is the quietest First Class Cabin in the world.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-FIRST CLASS-2

With First Class only having eight seats, the 737-700 sized Upper-deck was too large for the top cabin without splitting it, besides it is not nearly as quiet as the forward section of the lower-deck used by First. Another cool feature is the electrically controlled window shades that raise and lower just like a power window. The Dreamliner’s enlarged electronically-tinting windows are not part of the 747-8 package. The current First Class product, first introduced on the Airbus A380, is understated but quite elegant.

Unlike Singapore and Emirates, Lufthansa embraces an open cabin architecture, not enclosed suite, approach. Another unexpected wow is the Lufthansa bathrooms, which have a separate toilet and sink area. Among the most elegant lavs in the sky, Lufthansa’s First Class lavatory did boast the famous “loo with a view” window like the 787 and is trimmed in very tasteful textures and surfaces.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-LOO WITH A VIEW-3

The only shortcoming in comparison to the 747-400 at this point is LH’s new SkyNet Wi-Fi product is not offered on the Dash 8. It will be offered from 2013 forward and installed on the Dash 8 beginning in 2013, beginning with the 6th Dash 8 delivered. Lufthansa claims 90% of its long-haul fleet will have broadband by the end of 2012.

I personally flew in the new Business Class cabin with the B/E Aerospace manufactured and PearsonLloyd designed lie-flat seats and found it very comfortable with plenty of ergonomic touches and ample storage. The new textures and finishes are a major improvement over the previous configuration, transitioning from blue/yellow to Lufthansa grey/yellow.

The seats are covered in virgin wool fabric with a leather armrest and are constructed of lightweight titanium, aluminum, and carbon fiber. At first glance, the seats appear narrow and not private, but they really shine in sleep mode when they extend to a fully flat six feet.

The previous Business Cabin seats were narrower and featured the much-derided angled bed, so there was a significant improvement here. A fixed ottoman built into the front console can be used as a footrest or part of the bed when it’s flat. The “Flying V” layout creates a very airy, social feel as the seats face each other at a slight angle. The passengers have more space between them in the head-shoulder areas. As most business travelers travel alone, you would think this would detract from their expected privacy but this wasn’t the case in practice.

The IFE screens increased to 15” from 10.4”. However, the previous Business Class seats did have a massage function that I missed. Lufthansa has 7,000 business class seats in their inventory, which renders LH the largest provider of International Business Class seating in the world. The airline views Business Class the most important part of its passenger business, and its introduction into service is nearly as crucial as is the 747-8I.

Not leaving anything to chance, Lufthansa trialed the new seats on a 747-400 tested by 1,340 flyers on LH flights 400 and 401 (Frankfurt ‘ New York´s JFK) during eight weeks in 2010 to gain user feedback.

Lufthansa surprisingly doesn’t offer Premium Economy at this point, but the Recaro designed and manufactured 10-abreast Economy Seats with their firm seating were relatively comfortable as well, though seat pitch is unchanged from before. They are thinner than older Economy Seats but with the magazine pocket relocated nearly to the top of the seat in front of the cabin, they give the feeling of more pitch.

The seat pan moves forward as the seat reclines making it more comfortable than other seats in this class. Also, LH added power to their new Boeing 747-800I economy cabin. That said, this is economy and you still get what you pay for.

The IFE system is an evolution of the Panasonic eX2 system introduced on the Airbus A380, but it did seem more responsive. The most noticeable feature besides the 2 aforementioned cameras is the airshow display, entitled “Niceview”. This moving map displays a 3D virtual representation of the aircraft and is fully interactive down to zooming down into the location. It offers 100s of video options, 30 radio channels, 200 CD’s, games, audio books, and even Berlitz language lessons.

As we approached the jet stream over Newfoundland, we did encounter light to moderate chop which provided a wonderful opportunity to watch the Intercontinental’s 787 inspired raked wings to flex and gust suppression technology do their thing. Even with the occasional rough air jolts, the 747-8 platform was very stable. Informally, a couple of crew anecdotally mooted that the 747-8 wing is stiffer than the 747-400 and therefore doesn’t ride quite as smooth.

At this point midway through the flight, while cruising at 36,000ft, Capt Boje reported a combined fuel flow of 9.6t/h (at M0.843) from the four General Electric GEnx engines, with a ground speed of 479kt (886km/h) and a 20kt headwind.

On the upper-deck, Elizabeth Lund VP of the Boeing 787 program and Lufthansa CEO Dr. Christoph Franz, held two press briefings: Lund revealed some key pieces of news. Production of the new 747-8I has now reached its two aircraft per month build target. As a point of comparison, the maximum Boeing 747-400 production rate ever achieved was five aircraft per month in the heyday of the 747 program back in the 1990s.

20 aircraft had been delivered with Lufthansa receiving is 2nd example last June, which will continue to 2015 until they all 20 are delivered.

She was not able to confirm the five Air China orders yet as there are still government issues to be resolved. Lund mentioned the second customer, Korean Air, will receive their 747-8I within the next year but the timeline has not been revealed. Transaero of Russia will follow. Along the way, the 9 VIPs on order will be delivered. The first 747-8I was actually delivered to an undisclosed VIP customer, which is in the midst of a two-year interior conversion.

Other key news: The Performance Improvement Package with its updated FMC (Flight Management Computer), new GE-NX2B engines, and the activation of the range increasing rear tail fuel tanks will be activated by the end of 2013. This would lead to a range increase to the promised 8,000 miles, max take-off rate of 987,000 pounds and increased fuel efficiency with a new RNP. She revealed that the aircraft coming off the line beginning 2014 would hit the “brochure” targets right off the line.

Lund commented that she was “excited and in awe of what our team has accomplished” but compared the flight to planning a party and hoping everything would go well and all the guests will be happy. Of the 747-8I, Lund said “It will be the cornerstone of LH fleet for decades to come. The 747-8I offers more range, payload, capability, and is the fastest airplane flying today with the lowest operating costs as well. It’s my honor to represent my team back in Seattle.”

Lund was questioned about the possibility of the 747-9, but said between the 777-X, 737 Max, the 787-9, and 787-10, the 747-9 had to get in line behind these other programs.

The Lufthansa Group CEO Dr. Christoph Franz spoke glowingly about the aircraft and how it is a key element in Lufthansa’s quest for additional fuel efficiency. Franz revealed that Singapore and India would be the 747-8 Intercontinental’s next destinations as the 6 due this year came online, with Chicago and California following later. The 747-8I will operate 5-6 days per week to Washington for the foreseeable future due to the small fleet, which will number 20 by 2015.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-CEO

He intimated that he too expects more orders for the 747-8I from other airlines when they see the advantages to the gap in the market between the A380 and 777-300ER/A340-600 that only the 747 fills, especially in premium markets. Franz said the “reason airlines haven’t focused on the 747-8 is because the 787 and A380 attracted so much attention, but this will change as they see the data. Our goal is for Lufthansa to be a ‘three-liter fleet’ (three liters of fuel for 100 passenger kilometers). The 747-8 I serves that purpose”.

I spent a few minutes with Nico Buchholz, EVP of Lufthansa Group Fleet Management. In some ways, he is considered the “Father of the 747-8” having sketched the specs out on a napkin. He compared the 747 to the Porsche 911 in being an icon. The 747-8 Intercontinental, like the Porsche 911, has always had an iconic look but both are completely different than their predecessors of 40 years ago. He echoes what Boeing says in that the 747-8 is virtually a new aircraft.

Though Buchholz said it was a trying experience at times, he felt very pleased that the aircraft performs as well as and meets the expectations he had set 6 years ago when Lufthansa became the launch customer. He verified that, though the early aircraft are slightly overweight, fuel consumption is indeed reduced from the Dash 400 by double digits and the noise footprint is 30% lower as advertised. That said, there is room for improvement: “We need the flight deck and cabin to be quieter. The A380 is a bit quieter, but the 2 aircraft are basically a wash. Still, we need the aircraft to be lighter. We’re pleased, we’re not done, but we’ll get there.”

With an hour left in the flight, the flight crew began a second meal service. This was par for the course for this cheerful crew who were constantly making every attempt to feed and hydrate us at every opportunity. At 11:32 EST, the throttles were slowly eased back over the Hudson Valley, New York and we began our slow gradual descent through various cloud decks as we descended from 36,000 feet.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-WING-6

Lufthansa had another surprise up its sleeve in all classes as custom-made cakes with a model of the Boeing 747 on a runway were served.

LH 748 INAUGURAL DAY-CAKE-1

The PA announcement said something to the effect of “In Germany when we celebrate, there’s always a cake”. The cake tasted divine but I felt a bit bad about eating such an aesthetically pleasing piece.

At 12:22 EST we gently touched down on Washington Dulles’ Runway 19C at 149 knots at a weight of around 592,000 pounds meaning it had burnt around 160,000 pounds of fuel during the 7:58 flight. It was quite amazing to watch the approach on the cockpit camera. Other airlines such as Emirates offer this view, but for me, this was a first. We slowly taxied to the terminal, where the Washington Airports Authority showered the newest Jumbo with its second water cannon salute.

Shortly thereafter, LH416 was on blocks at 12:32 PM and chocked itself into history. Dulles had already freshly-painted the Boeing 747-8 marks on the tarmac, even though this was the first time the aircraft had ever landed at IAD.

As the crew emerged from the flight deck, I was able to take the first picture of them disembarking. Though rushed to make a post-flight press conference, they were quite giddy and pleased to take a few questions and a photo. Captain Carsten, who performed both the take-off and landing, told me this was his first time flying the 747-8I. By his airmanship and “grease job” landing, I would’ve thought this was his hundredth landing.

Carsten praised his conveyance and basically said “we know and love this plane already. The Dash 8 made an already great plane, the Dash 400, significantly better”. Captain Carsten’s assessment of “The new Queen of the Skies for the 21st Century” summed up my feelings and those of many of my fellow passengers perfectly. Long live the Queen!


Special thanks to: Klaus Walther, Martin Riecken, Christina Semmel, and Dorothee Seiler