747-8I First Flight K65204-04

MIAMI — Boeing has less than two dozen confirmed 747-8 aircraft orders left to fill, and there has been little change to the order books over the past year, although in a report by Bloomberg, Randy Tinseth, Vice President of Marketing for Boeing, did say that there are some “near term opportunities” for the 747-8.

Boeing offers both passenger and freighter versions of the 747-8, but close to 60% of the orders have been for the 747-8F. Industry analysts predict that the world’s air cargo market’s growth rate will need to increase quite a bit to cause airlines to place more orders for the 747-8 in order for 747 production to continue.

The 747-8 program has long been a challenge for Boeing.  Since starting production in August 2008 with only one customer for the aircraft, Boeing’s critics have had their doubts on the success of the 747-8 program. Unfortunately, things did get a bit worse as the first flight was pushed back by a few months, and then-Boeing Chief Executive, Jim McNerney, began publicly questioning the success and future of the 747-8 program.

Over time, Boeing proved to its critics that the 747-8 could be a success as it marched through flight-testing and secured orders, although at the time of the first delivery in October 2011, the number of orders was not exactly the strongest, with only 111 firm orders. Now if we fast forward to early 2016, the order books have seen very little change as only a dozen or so firm orders have been added.

In a widely anticipated announcement a little over a year ago, Boeing announced its bid successfully won the contract from the United States Air Force to produce at least two 747-8s to fly as “Air Force One.” For a few years, the Air Force had been looking to replace its two aging 747s that fly the U.S. president. The 747-8s are expected to be delivered in 2018, but then they will have to undergo extensive modifications over a few years and begin flying the U.S. president sometime after 2020. However, this order is being criticized in the congressional budget so the future of this order is in some unchartered territory.

The Boeing 747-8 is set to become the nexy generation of the Air Force One. (Credits: USAF)
The Boeing 747-8 is set to become the nexy generation of the Air Force One. (Credits: USAF)

While the USAF. 747-8 order is sort of up in the air, Boeing still has some “white tailed” 747-8s to get off the lot, which are aircraft that have already been built but do not have an owner. This can be a hard task for any manufacturer, let alone for an aircraft that has been a hard sell.  The Seattle Times does report that Boeing was able to get the number of “white tail” 747-8s down from six to four as Air Bridge Cargo of Russia took delivery of the two jumbo jets and leased them through Boeing Capital. On the bright side even though they are still owned by Boeing, they are making Boeing some money, and the delivery of these two marked the 99th and 100th deliveries for the program.

2015 was a difficult year for the 747-8 program; Transaero folded which means it would not take delivery of the four it had on order and Nippon Cargo cancelled four of the 14 it had on order. Plus, the production rate will be cut down to half per month in September, down from the proposed tarhet of one per month that it will reach in March. The move is obviously intended to keep production going till more orders will come from air cargo carriers signifying stronger growth in the air freight market.

Now, 2015 was not all bad; Boeing surpassed the 100 delivery mark of the 747-8, and during the 2015 Paris Air Show, Air Bridge Cargo signed a preliminary agreement with Boeing to take delivery of 20 aircraft through a mix of leasing and direct purchases. Still, Air Bridge Cargo’s order has not been fully finalized, and it may not necessarily be enough to help sustain the program long-term if finalized, unless Boeing is able to continue to bring in orders. And 2015 was bittersweet as long time Boeing 747 customer, Lufthansa, took delivery of the final 747 aircraft it had on order.

The remaining 747-8 deliveries include:

  • A few more 747-8s for Air Bridge Cargo, but there order has not been fully confirmed
  • Up to three potential 747-8s for the U.S. Air Force
  • One 747-8F for Cargolux
  • Two 747-8F for Silk Way Airlines
  • Four 747-8F for Korean Air Cargo
  • Five 747-8I for Korean Airlines
  • Two 747-8F for Nippon Cargo
  • One 747-8F for Cathay Pacific Cargo
  • One 747-8I for a private customer

Overall, the 747 has been a success for Boeing; more than 1,500 have been delivered to customers all over the globe; it has flown government leaders, movie stars, artists, families, and countless other people; and the aviation community has fallen in love with it and has rightly been dubbed the “Queen of the Skies.”

There is truly no other plane like the Boeing 747, but for better or worse, the end of 747 production is near, especially as the backlog of the 747-8 continues to dwindle and few changes occur to the order books. Like the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, but nobody quite knows when we will see the end of 747 production. It does seem likely to be sooner rather than later.

Boeing is optimistic that it may be able to gain a few more orders as air freight companies are retiring older aircraft. Boeing expects to see a demand of approximately 250 aircraft over the next few years. Still, airlines and cargo companies are switching to more-efficient and twin-engine aircraft as the economics of the “Queen of the Skies” are a bit of a royal pain.