Today marks nine years since the Boeing 747-8’s first revenue-earning passenger-carrying flight. The aircraft is the latest variant from Boeing’s iconic 747 family, which, as a whole, dates back more than half a century. While its predecessors, particularly the 747-400, sold well, the 747-8 has found orders rather harder to come by. Let’s take a look at the operational history of this aircraft, and why, at least in its passenger form, it hasn’t taken off.
Strong historical pedigree
The 747-8 represents the latest chapter in one of aviation history’s most iconic airliner families. The story began in the late 1960s, when Boeing looked to develop the world’s first twin-aisle jetliner. It did so under the leadership of Joe Sutter, who had previously worked on the 737 program. Of course, this also became an industry-defining short-haul airliner.
The need for Boeing to embark on such a project arose after Pan Am demanded a jetliner significantly larger than its existing 707. It hoped that, by increasing the plane’s capacity by 250%, the cost per seat would drop by 30%, helping to democratize air travel. Pan Am flew the 747-100’s first passenger-carrying service from New York to London in 1970.
The 747-100 was followed by the better-performing 747-200. This formed the basis of the short-fuselage, long-range 747SP (Special Performance). The 747-300 had a stretched upper deck as standard, but was quickly overshadowed in 1989 by the 747-400, which boasted a two-person glass cockpit. Two decades later, it was time for the 747-8 to join the party.
The largest variant
With Airbus’s colossal A380 under development, Boeing commissioned several studies into a potential competitor in the early 2000s. This culminated in the launch of the 747-8 program, which Boeing launched in 2005. At the time, it forecasted sales of 300 aircraft, with both passenger (747-8I ‘Intercontinental) and cargo (747-8F) versions planned.
To match the A380’s size and capacity, Boeing designed the 747-8 with a longer body than the 747-400. It measures 76.3 meters in length, which made it Boeing’s longest aircraft at the time of its launch. It has since been overtaken in this domain by the 76.7-meter long 777-9. The 747-8 is also Boeing’s heaviest airliner (MTOW: 975,000 lb/442 t).
The increased size of the 747-8 over its predecessor is also evident when comparing the two designs’ respective wingspans. While the 747-400 measures 64.4 meters in width, the 747-8 tops this by around four meters. That being said, their heights are the same.
Entry into service
German flag carrier Lufthansa was the first airline to operate the passenger-carrying 747-8I. It ordered 19 examples of the aircraft in December 2006, and the first entered service with the airline exactly nine years ago today, on June 1st, 2012.
The type’s inaugural service with Lufthansa was a flight from Frankfurt International (FRA) to Washington Dulles (IAD). Christoph Franz, Lufthansa’s Chairman and CEO at the time, excitedly welcomed Boeing’s newest jumbo jet into the fleet, stating:
“The Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental is an exceptional aircraft. With its addition to our fleet, Lufthansa has created a product that is not only in line with our company’s commitment to innovation, technology and efficiency, but that also offers qualities and features that are sure to maximize our passengers’ in-flight experience.”
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Since the 747-8’s launch nine years ago, Lufthansa has operated it on various intercontinental routes from Frankfurt. As it looks to fuel its recovery this summer, it will be deploying the aircraft to a total of 16 destinations from Germany’s busiest airport. Capacity-wise, the most significant is Mexico City, with Lufthansa offering 147,784 two-way seats.
While the 747-8 has cemented its role as a key part of Lufthansa’s fleet, this can’t be said for airlines elsewhere. Indeed, the type has struggled for sales, with Lufthansa being its only commercial customer until 2009, when Korean Air ordered five. It added five more in 2013. Air China also requested five examples in 2012, with two more added in 2013.
Boeing’s data shows Russian carrier Transaero as having ordered four 747-8s in 2013. However, the carrier never took them up, and ceased operations two years later. Boeing, at least in terms of the 747-8, was similarly unlucky with Nigerian carrier Arik Air. This airline ordered two 747-8s in 2011, but converted them to Boeing 787 orders in 2017.
The remaining orders for the passenger-configured 747-8 belong mainly to customers planning to use the aircraft for VIP/business jet purposes. The US Air Force has also a pair inbound, which will replace its current ‘Air Force One’ presidential 747-200s. These aircraft are part of the contingent that Transaero didn’t end up receiving. Finally, the type also has two orders from unidentified customers, placed in 2017 and 2021.
Why has the type sold poorly?
All in all, Boeing has delivered just 47 passenger-configured 747-8s to the above customers. This contrasts greatly with the success of the 747-400 that preceded it, which accumulated 467 deliveries (including the -400D and -400ER variants). But why is this the case?
While the 747-8 may have been a good idea at the time of its launch, time has not been kind to the aircraft. Its high-capacity nature means that, like the A380 which Boeing designed the 747-8 as a reaction to, it relies on high load factors in order to be profitable.
However, with the hub-and-spoke model that such aircraft demand becoming less of a trend, this has become difficult.
More common as a freighter
That being said, all hope is not lost for the 747-8 as a whole. Indeed, the type has found more success in the cargo sector. In fact, the 747-8F was the first variant of the type to be launched. Cargolux introduced it commercially in October 2011, and now operates 14.
Boeing has received 107 orders for the 747-8F. Of this figure, it has delivered 96 examples, to cargo airlines all over the world. In addition to Cargolux’s 14 examples, Boeing has delivered the same number to Cathay Pacific’s cargo division. Other operators include AirBridgeCargo, Korean Cargo, Nippon Cargo, Silk Way West Airlines, and Volga-Dnepr.
The outstanding orders are for Atlas Air (four aircraft) and UPS (seven aircraft). These carriers both already operate other examples of the 747-8F, with 10 and 21 in their respective fleets. The seven outstanding UPS orders will, once delivered, see its 747-8F fleet swell to twice the size of the aircraft’s next-largest operator. While the family remains considerably shy of its forecasted 300 orders, it will continue to help keep the world moving for years to come.
What do you make of the 747-8? Have you ever flown on the newest iteration of Boeing’s legendary jumbo jet? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.