The last hurrah of the Boeing 747: the Intercontinental Queen
On October 12, 2011, Cargolux operated the first commercial flight of the newest version of the Queen of the Skies, the 747-8. While the flight only carried freight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Luxembourg, both Boeing and Cargolux could not be any less excited. The then-president and Chief Executive Officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Jim Albaugh said that the 747-8 Freighter was “truly the Queen of the Skies for the 21st Century”. Frank Reimen, who was then the CEO of Cargolux, added that the company was looking “forward to the efficiency and environmental benefits that come with this great airplane”. A year later, on June 1, 2012, Lufthansa introduced the Boeing 747-8I, a passenger version of the quad-jet, dubbed the Intercontinental.
Yet the Queen’s newest iteration never really took off.
Ever since it was announced in 2005, orders were rather scarce. Airlines ordered a total of 154 as of September 30, 2019, even falling short to the Airbus A380, its direct competitor. But the business case for it was, and still is, an interesting one. Boeing had a big advantage over the Super Jumbo as the 747-8 could be operated as a freighter – Airbus’ huge cargo plane never left the design sheets. Furthermore, its operating economics were far superior, at least according to Boeing – the aircraft “will offer 22 percent lower trip costs” compared to the A380, Boeing’s press release stated.
The United States manufacturer also predicted that the industry will have a need of “900 airplanes – passengers and freighters – in the 400-plus-seat segment” up until 2025. But the prediction was way off. Combined total orders for the 747-8 and the A380 are less than half of the initial prediction – 444 (154 for the 747, 290 for the Airbus A380).
So, why the Intercontinental is just a Local?
A lot of emphasis was put onto the freighter version, the 747-8F. Two launch customers for the 747-8 family were cargo companies – the aforementioned Cargolux and All Nippon Airways’ cargo subsidiary, Nippon Cargo Airlines. Boeing launched the aircraft on November 14, 2005, with 18 firm (10 from Cargolux, eight from Nippon Cargo) orders and 16 options, both from the same two cargo airlines. The passenger version of the Boeing 747-8 attracted its first customer on December 6, 2006, when Lufthansa inked a contract for 20 firm and 20 options for the Intercontinental.
The emphasis on cargo operations for the 747-8 is even more clear when you focus on the split of orders and deliveries between the Freighter and the Intercontinental:
Out 154 orders, 47 were for the Passenger version. Since the last delivery on December 10, 2017, Boeing received zero new orders for the 747-8I. In contrast, the cargo Queen has 107 standing orders, with a backlog of 19 aircraft, as of September 30, 2019. However, its last order was 10 months ago, when Volga-Dnepr UK ordered three 747s on December 29, 2018.
With a backlog of 19 aircraft, the production of the Queen is set to cease in 2023, as Boeing currently produces 0.5 747-8s per month since September 2016. In 2016, the manufacturer already lingered around with the idea of ceasing production completely in 2019, as it had to incur a reach-forward loss of $1.1 billion due to weakening demand for the 747.
The current Chairman, President and CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg on July 21, 2016, noted that the company was monitoring the “air cargo market and aggressively drive productivity and cost reduction as we work to win additional orders to support ongoing production”. It seems like the strategy somewhat paid off – UPS salvaged the program in 2016 and once more in 2018 with relatively big orders. Both times United Parcel Service (UPS) ordered 14 Boeing 747-8 freighters, extending the backlog with 28 total additional units.
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