As of mid-June, Boeing had 51 747-8 aircraft in the order backlog. The company is building 18 freighters and passenger airliners a year combined. That means the assembly in Everett, Washington, is exhausted by early 2017, unless Boeing’s sales team can find new orders.

“We need to sell a few more,” says Pat Shanahan, Boeing senior vice-president and general manager of airplane programmes.

Therein lies the challenge.

The future of the venerable, four-engined jumbo – and, not least, the next Air Force One – depends on whether Boeing can sign up new customers.

Finding customers may depend on whether the company can increase the range of the passenger variant by 500nm (925km), putting flights from China to the US east coast and from the Middle East to the US west coast within its reach.

Adding more range – and weight – means the fate of the 747 programme may come down to a singular engineering question: how much more load can be absorbed by the jumbo jet’s landing gear?

All of the other technical questions are already answered. Thanks to an initiative formerly named Project Ozark, Boeing knows how it can add range to the 747-8I. The now-nameless initiative involves several aerodynamic tweaks and raising the maximum take-off weight by nearly 7% to 472t, says Eric Lindblad, Boeing’s vice-president and general manager of the 747-8 programme.

As the aircraft weight increases, the landing gear must also be strengthened. Boeing is still working to solve that problem.

“We think we can get there with a few minor modifications,” Lindblad says. “It really gets down to how we clear the structural margins. We think there’s a way there. I can’t say today that we’ve cleared the margins as of right now.”

As Lindblad’s engineers keep working, the sales effort continues. The global market for air freight leaped by 4% in the first quarter and after a long period of stagnation. The increase approaches Boeing’s forecast for a return to annualised growth of 5% starting this year.

Although demand for air freight is growing, it could take at least two years to burn through an excess of air freight supply in the market. For several years, freight airlines have parked large aircraft in storage. Many of those aircraft will have to be absorbed into the market before orders for new freighters will match the 5% growth in overall demand, Lindblad says.

Even then, there is no guarantee that cargo carriers will order the four-engined 747-8 versus the more efficient, twin-engined 777 Freighter.

The key to extending the 747-8 backlog for at least two more years lies in the passenger market.

“We just want to sell more passenger (variants],” Shanahan says. “I think people are going to buy it, but they haven’t bought it. So we’ve got to go sell some more.”

So far, Boeing has sold only one 747-8 in 2014, and that was a VIP version of the passenger variant. Lindblad, however, remains optimistic that the second half will be more fruitful. Last year, he notes, Boeing had sold only three 747-8s in the first half, but finished the year with a total of 17 orders signed in 2013.

Sales “campaigns tend to be like grapes”, he says. “You pick grapes when they’re ripe. We’re not quite to the point we’re ready to close out on these campaigns.”

If the landing gear problem can be solved, Boeing will be able to address a key performance issue. In 2007, Boeing decided to stretch the 747-8I to add capacity rather than achieve 8,200nm range. The decision pleased launch customer Lufthansa but drove away potential customers Emirates and Cathay Pacific.

Now, the company is working to restore the 8,200nm range target – making Hong Kong-New York or Dubai-San Francico possible – with fuel reserves.

To seal the deal, Boeing will have to get “creative”, Lindblad says. Last year, Cathay Pacific agreed to buy three more 747-8Fs, in exchange for Boeing taking back four 747-400s for freighter conversions.

“There’s some additional creativity that we have to apply with trade-ins,” Lindblad says. “We also have to look at some creativity around financing aspects of this. That’s why some of these deals take longer.”

The prize for extending production is potentially a new surge of freighter orders beyond 2016 and the opportunity to replace the 747-200-based VC-25 – also known as Air Force One – later in this decade. The US Air Force currently plans to buy a “four-engined” commercial aircraft to replace the VC-25 in Fiscal 2017.

“We’ll be in a position to build the aircraft at the time it supports when the government says it needs them,” Lindblad says.

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Source: Cirium Dashboard