The 747 is perhaps the most popular plane in Boeing’s history. But the embattled aircraft maker could be getting close to finally pulling the plug on the once groundbreaking jumbo jet with the distinctive second-floor bulge.
The company hasn’t built a passenger version of the plane since it delivered the last one to Korean Airlines in 2017. Rival Airbus (EADSF) dropped its own jumbo jet, the A380 last year. Delta Air Lines (DAL) was the last US airline to fly a passenger version of the plane, also in 2017. That was the last year the 747 flights – by both Delta and United (UAL) – drew large crowds of the plane’s fans, a testament to its enduring popularity.
But since then, Boeing (BA) has built only a freighter version of the jet at a slowed production rate of one every two months, half the previous pace.
Its order book for even that version of the jet is extremely short – only 12 remaining firm orders from UPS (UPS), and three orders for a Russian cargo carrier which Boeing no longer counts as certain enough to be listed in its backlog of orders.
UPS says it is very happy with the plane, having taken delivery of its 16th 747 freighter just more than a week ago.
“The 747-8 is an incredibly capable aircraft, with capacity that is unmatched by any other freighter in production,” said UPS. “With a maximum payload of 307,000 lbs., we use them on long, high-volume routes, connecting Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.”
But it’s no longer clear that it’s worth the expense to Boeing as it scrambles to cut costs and 16,000 jobs in the face of the worst downturn the aerospace industry has perhaps ever seen.
On Thursday Bloomberg reported that Boeing is preparing to announce the end of production of the plane after the existing orders are filled. It cited estimates that Boeing is losing $40 million on each of the jets, and it’s taking up too much space in its Washington state factory given the slow rate of production. Boeing issued a statement neither confirming nor denying plans to discontinue the plane.
“At a build rate of half an airplane per month, the 747-8 program has more than two years of production ahead of it in order to fulfill our current customer commitments. We will continue to make the right decisions to keep the production line healthy and meet customer needs,” said Boeing.
The plane just turned 50 at the end of last year. Boeing delivered the first 747 passenger jets in December of 1969 to two airlines that no longer exist - TWA and Pan Am. While the cargo version of the jets are still very useful, the passenger version has apparently outlived its usefulness.
There are only 171 of the passenger versions of the jet still in fleets of airlines around the world, and only 27 of those are now in use, according to the Cirium Fleets database, a research firm that tracks commercial jets.
While that’s up from only two of the planes that were flying at the end of April, it’s not clear when there will be a need for most of the 144 grounded 747 passenger jets to return to service, especially since international air travel, the routes on which they were most often used, is expected to be the slowest to bounce back even when people start flying again.
The large supply of unneeded passenger 747 planes is another blow to the chances Boeing continuing to build a freighter version of the 747 jets. Unused passenger jets have frequently been converted into freighters. While a new 747 freighter might have some efficiency advantages over the older converted versions, it might not be enough if the cost of used passenger jets drops enough.
And Boeing has another jumbo jet for which it has freighters – the 777, of which FedEx (FDX) has more than 40 of the jets in its fleet. It doesn’t have the capacity of a 747 freighter, but Boeing at least has unfilled orders for 45 of the 777 freighters from nine different customers, including FedEx (FDX).
It is also reportedly having conversations with customers about a freighter version of the new, larger version of the 777, the 777X, which is in the process of being certified to fly.
There are more than 300 orders for the passenger version of the 777X, which makes it one of the bedrock planes of Boeing’s future plans, unlike the 747.
There are two “passenger” versions of the plane now being worked on, but it’s not for any commercial airline. Instead they are destined to be the new Air Force Ones.
In February of this year, Boeing began the process of converting two existing 747-8 jets into the new fleet of presidential jets at a cost of $3.9 billion for the two planes. That work, due to take four years, is expected to continue no matter what decision is made about the 747’s future.