Business

Boeing's 747 to fly off the production line for the foreseeable future

Big freighter order keeps the Jumbo Jet aloft and it was the internet wot won it

By Simon Sharwood

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Boeing's iconic 747 looks safe for a few years yet, thanks in part to the internet.

Last year Boeing warned that slow sales and unsold aircraft meant it was “reasonably possible that we could decide to end production of the 747”, a foreshadowing that saddened aviation enthusiasts who honour the aircraft's role as a harbinger of affordable international travel.

But the four-engine 747 is a tricky proposition these days, as it is handily out-performed by twin-engine planes that can match it for capacity and range. Twin-engine planes burn less fuel than the Jumbo Jet and as fuel is the airlines' main cost, it is hard to contemplate buying new 747s.

Freight operators, however, need to get heavy cargos off the ground and are increasingly keen on hauling big loads between big distribution centres, the better to move goods ordered by those who shop online.

This is why freight concern UPS signed up for 14 747-8 freighters in late October 2016, with options for another 14 in the future.

That sale meant that Boeing's quarterly results call last week featured Boeing chair, president and CEO Dennis Muilenburg, advising that “this order helps to fill the production skyline for the foreseeable future and significantly de-risks 747 program”.

That's far from a guarantee that the 747 is safe, not least because United Airlines recently announced it would stop using the passenger version of the plane by the end of 2017. Yet with UPS expecting its new craft to come into service from 2019 and Boeing currently building the planes at a rate of six a year, the Jumbo has clearly dodged the elephant's graveyard for a while even if its role has changed to a cargo-hauler.

The 747 attracted controversy late last year when then-president-elect Donald J Trump wondered why Boeing had put such a high price tag on a planned revamp for Air Force One, which is based on the Jumbo. During the earnings call Muilenburg said Boeing is “very encouraged by President Trump’s engagement.”

Answering an analyst's question, the CEO said “... we had some targeted discussions, well publicized discussions on things like Air Force One and fighter aircraft. I think those were very productive discussions as well. This is all about making sure we are providing best capability for our government and our war fighters at best affordability best value for our taxpayers, and we are exactly on the same page there.

“He is engaging and making decisions that will help us grow the economy and ultimately grow U.S. manufacturing jobs. So I'm encouraged by that dialogue, and I think having direct open dialogue is productive and very good for the future.”

Boeing is otherwise in fine health, booking US$23.3bn for the quarter and $94bn for the year, albeit with earnings dipping 22 per cent to $5.8bn. The company sent 926 new aircraft down the runway and into owners' hands over the year, of which commercial operators acquired 748. ®

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