It has taken Boeing a long, long time to decide to launch a larger 747. Indeed, this magazine has expended many thousands of words about Boeing’s long-running 747 “X-studies”. Truth be told, repeated talk by the US manufacturer of plans for a bigger, better 747 had become a subject of some amusement in some quarters of the industry.

But now, nine years after Boeing came within a whisker of kick-starting the ultra- large airliner market with its proposed 747-500/600X, it has put its money where its mouth is and there is finally a new-generation successor to the world’s most popular widebody. In between the -600X and the 747-8 family launched last week, Boeing toyed with another new generation 747 offering, the “X Stretch”, quietly dropped in 2001, but not before it had caused a few headaches for Airbus as it sought A380 launch customers.

So why does Boeing believe the time is now right for it to provide a successor for the 747 and rise to the challenge of the A380 – particularly given its long-standing doubts about the market for very large aircraft?

Firstly, the 747-8 family is a different animal to Boeing’s previous 747 stretch studies. It is arguably a more conservative step than the previous iterations – the 450-seat passenger version is less than 10% larger than today’s 747-400, whereas the 747-600X of 1996 would have seated 550 passengers, and the 747X Stretch of 2000-1 would have carried 504-520 passengers. And because of their greater size, previous versions were more heavily re-engineered in areas such as the wing.

Secondly, thanks to its dithering, Boeing has gained access to engine technology that is superior to the A380’s by adopting a powerplant developed for the 787 and A350. All previous studies could not have hoped for anything better than an A380/A3XX level of engine technology.

Despite Boeing’s much-vaunted pessimistic view (compared with Airbus’s) on the size of the very large airliner market, it has always maintained that there would still be limited demand for aircraft in the 400-seat plus category, and has kept a weather eye on market developments. This year, it upped its forecast for large aircraft demand for the first time in several years – an early indicator that it was preparing the ground for the 747-8 launch.

Boeing has also consistently been bullish about the strength of demand for large freighter aircraft – so it should be no surprise that the new 747’s launch has been supported exclusively by orders from cargo carriers. In this sector the 747-8 trails little more than a year behind the A380 in terms of entry-into-service. And its uplift, from a payload perspective at least, is within 7% of the A380F’s, although the Airbus giant can fly its greater payload and volume significantly further.

Airbus believes that it is more than capable of seeing off the new 747 with the A380. Company executives have always acknowledged that, when designing the A380, they assumed that an all-new ultra-large aircraft would eventually emerge from Seattle – so surely a “warmed-up” 747 stretch should prove no contest? But this argument is being reversed lower down in the size spectrum, where Airbus is confident it can compete against the all-new, composite-constructed 787 family with a major derivative of the A330, the A350. And, like Boeing with the 747-8, it is playing to the commonality strengths of the derivative with the in-service fleet.

Although Airbus has already dismissed the new 747’s prospects of being a serious competitor to the A380, it should be wary of the new offering. Earlier this year one of Airbus’s senior salesmen confessed that the emergence of serious plans by Boeing for a new 747 had already slowed down one or two A380 campaigns.

Without a Boeing-spawned successor for the 747, Airbus could have confidently predicted that it would mop up the bulk of the replacement market for the 500 or so 747-400s currently in passenger service, with airlines “mis-using” the 550-seater in lower density layouts – perhaps “encouraged” to so by deal pricing. The arrival of the 747-8 could severely limit that opportunity if it achieves Boeing’s performance and cost claims.

But without doubt where the A380 holds a trump card is with its growth capability – even Boeing executives describe the baseline A380-800 model as little more than a “shrink” of the proposed 650-seat A380-900. And if Boeing does decide to tackle this size category, it will need to start with a clean sheet of paper.

Source: Flight International