With 747 orders slowing down and retirements picking up, questions have arisen over exactly how much longer the Boeing widebody will be operating in the world’s fleets. Chris Kjelgaard looks at its future prospects.
A topic MRO companies the world over may find of distinct interest is how long the Boeing 747 will remain in service. The prototype Boeing 747 having first flown on 9 February 1969, the 747 – the original “Jumbo Jet” – has now been in continuous production for nearly 48 years and every 747’s size, mechanical complexity, parts count and occasional need for interior refits or freighter conversions continue to provide important opportunities for heavy checks and other base maintenance.
The first 747 to enter service, a Pan American World Airways 747-100, operated its first commercial flight on 22 January 1970, which means that in just three months’ time the 747 family will have been in commercial service for 47 years. The introduction of the 747 into commercial service, carrying up to 400 passengers as it did, immediately revolutionised air travel, making it possible for the first time for much of the world’s population to fly long distances affordably.
But a much more important 747 consideration for MRO facilities will be how long the 747 will continue to keep flying. The latest indications are that 747s could, just possibly, still be flying more than 40 years from now. In other words, the 747 might only now be reaching the halfway point in its remarkable, world-altering flying career.
Although many airlines worldwide have retired their fleets of passenger-carrying Boeing 747-400s in the past five years – having retired their 747-300s, 747-200 and 747-100s long ago – a surprising number of airlines still operate 747s in passenger configuration.
Many of these aircraft are 747-400s – British Airways being the largest remaining operator of the type, with around 40 in service (BA has another 11 or 12 stored) and no early complete retirement of its 747-400 fleet planned. In fact, BA recently performed a major interior refurbishment programme on its 747-400 fleet, updating all the cabins on all the remaining in-service aircraft and thus indicating it saw at least a medium-term future for the type in its fleet.
Probably the oldest Boeing 747s still in service are the four E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post 747 platforms based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and operated by the U.S. Air Force since 1974. The fact the U.S. Defense Department hasn’t indicated any time recently that it plans to retire these aircraft – no other type has yet come along which is capable of exceeding the E-4B’s capabilities in doing its specialised job – suggests the four E-4Bs could end up being the longest-serving 747s of all.
But such aircraft are not of interest to the MRO community at large, because commercial MRO facilities are very unlikely ever to be called upon to perform work on military-operated 747s which perform a role whose details remain largely classified.
Instead the MRO community casts its eyes towards the substantial fleet of commercially operated 747s which are still in service – and the many 747-8 Intercontinental passenger aircraft and (particularly) 747-8 Freighters which have only recently entered service or are still yet to do so.
The numbers of 747-400F, 747-400ERF and 747-400 Boeing Converted Freighters remaining in revenue service are high and the revenue-service days of the 747-200F (and perhaps even the 747-100F) aren’t entirely over.
Kalitta Air and several other cargo carriers still fly the 747-200F, one Kalitta Air 747-200F being photographed on final approach to Prestwick Airport in Scotland as recently as 26 October. (The rather attractive photo was then posted on the ‘Boeing 747 Fan Club’ Facebook page, of which this writer is a keen member). The scarce 747-300F (all of which were conversions from passenger aircraft) may still be in service too, with one known to have been flying for Belarusian carrier Transaviaexport earlier this year on commercial and humanitarian charter cargo flights.
Although the 747-8 Freighter is a more capable aircraft than the 747-400F, Boeing 747-400 freighters, particularly purpose-built 747-400Fs and 747-400ER Freighters are likely to remain in service for many years yet.
They still represent the workhorses of the world’s long-haul commercial freighter fleet, even though one day the 747-400F inevitably will cede market dominance to its younger, larger sibling. Surely 747-400Fs will be a familiar sight at cargo terminals at the world’s major commercial airports for at least a decade to come and perhaps for much longer than that.
However, for several years, until this year, the world’ s air cargo markets were mainly flat, as export markets for high-value items failed to rebound from the big downturn the global economy began to experience in early 2008. Worries about the state of global air cargo markets multiplied as aircraft increasingly flew sectors almost bereft of revenue payloads, particularly on westbound transpacific flights.
So Boeing’s recent public announcements that it was set to reduce production of the 747-8 to just six aircraft a year by 2019 seemed until very recently likely to herald the end of production of the mighty ‘Queen of the Skies’ just as the 747 assembly line was reaching half a century in operation.
However, new hope for 747 production continuing well beyond the 50-year mark is now evident. Boeing announced in July that Russian air cargo specialist Volga-Dnepr Group had ordered a batch of 20 747-8 Freighters and the manufacturer followed this yesterday, 27 October, with the extremely good news that UPS Airlines had placed an order for 14 747-8Fs and had optioned 14 more. The news will become all the better if UPS Airlines exercises those 14 options.
The big question now is whether the air cargo market will continue to turn up in the long term. The 2016 global-market growth trend has been positive, according to IATA. If the encouraging 2016 cargo-market performance is a harbinger of times to come, perhaps Boeing may not shut down the 747-8 production line for many years, because new 747-8Fs might be needed to handle increased air cargo demand.
That would be good news for Boeing and GE Aviation, it would be good news for the air cargo industry, it would be good news for commercial-aviation MRO facilities – and it would be good for everyone who just loves the mighty 747, one of the most graceful aircraft ever to have flown despite its massive size. Perhaps the world might yet see the 747 achieving a century of flight.