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For decades, the Boeing 747 was the Queen of the Skies. But the glamorous double-decker jumbo jet that revolutionized air travel and shrunk the globe could be nearing the end of the line. Boeing has cut its production target twice in six months. Just 18 will be produced in each of the next two years. Counting cancellations, it hasn’t sold a single 747 this year. Some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant. Boeing says it’s committed to the 747, and sees a market for it in regions like Asia. But most airlines simply don’t want big, four-engine planes anymore. They prefer newer two-engine jets that fly the same distance while burning less fuel.
Part of the problem is all those seats. A 747 can seat from 380 to 560 people, depending on how an airline sets it up. A full one is a moneymaker. But an airline that can’t fill all the seats has to spread the cost of 63,000 gallons of jet fuel- roughly $200,000- among fewer passengers. They’re also too big for most markets. There aren’t enough passengers who want to fly each day between Atlanta and Paris. And business travelers want more than one flight to choose from. So airlines fly smaller planes several times a day instead.
The eyes of Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz seem to be wandering away from the passenger version of Boeing’s 747, and that could be bad news for one of Boeing’s most venerable models. Lufthansa is considering replacing its fleet of 747-8 Intercontinentals with the yet-unlaunched 777-9X early in the next decade, Aviation Week quotes Franz as saying that his carrier is considering eventually replacing its Boeing 747-8 fleet with the proposed 777-9X some time in the next decade.
Speaking on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Cape Town, Franz told Aviation Week that once a twin-engine plane becomes available in the 747-8 size category, any airline would have to take a close look at such an aircraft because it is likely to be more efficient.
What makes Franz’ comments stand out is that Lufthansa was the launch customer for the 747-8i. Boeing is now delivering some of the 19 planes Lufthansa ordered. There are currently just 26 passenger 747s in Boeing’s backlog, and the company has slowed production of all 747-8s to 1.75 planes per month, from two. The problem facing Boeing is that the 777-9X will carry just 60 fewer passengers than the 747-8i, but with two engines instead of four, making the 777-9X an inherently more efficient proposition. The new 777X-9 is expected to hold 400 seats, about 10-15% fewer seats that the new 747-8 Intercontinental with a typical seating configuration of 460.
The business of flying has changed a lot since the 747′s introduction in 1970, when Jumbos flew major trunk routes between big cities such as New York to London. Over four decades the world has seen a shift to more direct routes connecting smaller cities like Seattle and larger markets with increasing frequencies This has lead to strong orders for smaller two-engine airliners with longer ranges including the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the new Airbus 350.
Boeing isn’t ready to put the 747 out to pasture because there’s nothing else like it, especially as a freighter. The new 747-8 comes as a freighter and a passenger version called the Intercontinental. But so far only Lufthansa, Korean and Air China have ordered the passenger version of the plane. Two-thirds of the orders are for freighters where the 747-F faces little direct competition. The Airbus 380 doesn’t come in a freighter configuration.
Boeing says it’s still in direct talks with interested airlines for the new 747-8 in both freighter and passenger configurations, and believes the next 20 years will see sales of more than 700 very large airplanes by all manufacturers. But so far in 2013, Boeing has seen a net gain of zero new sales with an order for five new jets offset by cancellations of five others.