Although the Jumbo still plays a role in air transport, its presence continues to diminish. Mark Broadbent reports
As a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 is pushed back for departure, a dozen people move to the terminal window, many taking a quick snap on their phone. The Jumbo’s humpback fuselage, tall tailfin and four engines inevitably draw attention, but the moment, witnessed by this correspondent in Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2 a few months ago, showed how people unable to tell a 787 from a 777 or an A350 from an A330 recognise the 747. The word ‘iconic’ is overused today to the point of being meaningless, but the 747 is.
The Jumbo’s ability to fly more than 350 people long haul in one go made it the largest-capacity passenger airliner at the time of its service entry with Pan Am in 1970. The aircraft’s ‘Queen of the Skies’ label, its status as a symbol of American pre-eminence in the aerospace industry, its use as Air Force One and above all its key role in the development of air transport all added to the legend.
Twin jet takeover
Legends don’t really matter in the aerospace industry’s commercial reality, however. The highly efficient twin-jet widebodies that have emerged in the last 15 years or so, led by the 777-300ER (more than 1,500 sold) and also including the A350 (913 sold by October 2019), off er twin-engine economics and more revenue-generating underfloor cargo capacity (a passenger 747-400 can carry 38 LD-3 containers, but the 777-300ER and A350- 1000 can carry 44) and comparable payload/ range to the Jumbo.
Simply, the 747 has been left behind, even in its newest 747-8 form with General Electric GEnx engines and aerodynamic improvements. The highly capable ‘big twins’ are now airlines’ flagship high-capacity longrange aircraft.
Only 51 examples of the 747-8 Intercontinental passenger variant have been sold since its launch in 2005. Air China was the last airline to order the 747-8I, and that was more than seven years ago. Lufthansa operates more 747-8Is (19 aircraft) than any other airline, with ten used by Korean Air Lines, eight by private customers (in the Boeing Business Jets or BBJ version), seven by Air China and one by an unidentified customer. Two have been ordered for the US Air Force for the VC-25B contract to introduce the new Air Force One for delivery from 2024.
Boeing acknowledged the end for the 747 as a passenger aircraft in 2017, when Vice-President of Marketing Randy Tinseth admitted the company does not see demand for passenger 747s beyond “a handful” for VIPs and military operations.
Adding to the end-of-days sense around the 747, along with new 747-8Is being so relatively thin on the ground, is the fact that airlines are retiring passenger 747-400s in large numbers in favour of the big twins. El Al is the latest major carrier to withdraw the 747-400 completely, its last example leaving service in September, following similar moves in the last couple of years by Air France, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
More retirements will follow. Qantas’ seven remaining 747-438ERs will be retired by the end of 2020. KLM currently has ten 747- 400s left and they will be gone by July 2021. Lufthansa will retire its 13 747-400s by 2025. (Interestingly, it plans to retain its 19-strong 747-8I fleet, even though it is cutting its 14-strong fleet of Airbus A380s to eight.) British Airways, which operates more Jumbos than any other single operator, is also set to retire its 747-400s over the next half-decade.
The airline has said the current 33-strong 747-436 fleet will reduce in size to 18 aircraft by late 2022 – the remaining aircraft being those recently refitted with a new cabin called Super High-J, including more premium seating –with the fleet fully withdrawn by early 2024.
Generally, an older aircraft’s capital expenditure tends to be lower (costs are amortised because it’s been in service for a long time), which means it can perform well at times of lower fuel prices, especially on routes where there is premium traffic. With BA’s strong hub at Heathrow and fuel prices relatively low for some years (below $100/barrel for the past five years according to the IATA Jet Fuel Price Monitor), it is perhaps no surprise to have seen BA continue to operate so many 747-400s and revamp many of its aircraft to make them good for the remainder of their time with the airline.
Twin jets are still more economical, however, and the 747’s status as the epitome of high-capacity long-haul passenger air travel is now firmly in the past. By the time the small number of 747-8Is reach the end of their time with their first operators, very few 747s will still be flying as passenger airliners.
Where do 747s go?
Putting aside the 747-8, the retirement of older 747s shines the spotlight on where these aircraft end up.
Just because major network operators are largely moving away from passenger services with 747s doesn’t mean the type no longer has a role. Certain examples with attractive acquisition costs, flying hours and maintenance records can find secondary careers, such as continuing as passenger or cargo aircraft with other operators, undergoing freighter conversion or filling specialist roles.
Between April and June 2019, for example, Cargolux introduced three 747-400 Freighters previously operated by ASL Airways and TNT Airways: 747-4HAERFs LX-MCL (c/n 35232, named City of Bourscheid), LX-LCL (c/n 35234, City of Clervaux) and LX-KCL (c/n 35236, City of Junglinster).
Some legacy 747s have found continued usage in the ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance, insurance) charter segment. For example, Atlas Air has taken on six 747-400s since early 2018, including 747-422 N480MC (c/n 28812), operated by United Airlines as N119UA from new in 1999 and one of the carrier’s last 747-400s in October 2017. Sister aircraft 747-412FSCD N489MC (c/n 26553) was formerly operated by Singapore Airlines (as 9V-SFD) and from November 2014 by Air Atlanta Icelandic (as TF-AMQ), while 747-45EFSCDs N485MC (c/n 30607) and N486MC (c/n 30608) were both previously used by EVA Air (as B-16481 and B-16482 respectively).
The continued use of some passenger 747- 400s by secondary operators like Atlas shows how the Jumbo will continue to provide utility, thanks to its seating capacity. Indeed, N480MC was recently part of the fleet of aircraft used to repatriate passengers to the UK after the collapse of Thomas Cook.
Other ex-network airline 747s are converted to freighters. The last two of those six 747s introduced by Atlas in the last couple of years are examples. The 747-412BCF N471MC (c/n 26557, previously B-HKX with Cathay Pacific Cargo and Air Hong Kong) started life in 1997 as a passenger 747-400 with Singapore Airlines (as 9V-SPL) before undergoing freighter conversion by Boeing in 2009, while 747-45EBDSF N472MC (c/n 27062), converted to a freighter in 2008, was built in 1992 and operated by EVA Air as B-16401.
The latter aircraft is one of the 747-400 passenger-to-freighter conversions carried out by IAI Bedek in Israel in its 747-400BDSF (Bedek Special Freighter) conversion programme. Other recent 747-400BDSF conversions include two aircraft for Asiana’s cargo fleet, HL7421 (c/n 25784) and HL7423 (c/n 25782), both previously used by the airline for passenger services, and Magma Aviation TF-AMN (c/n 27602), an ex-Air New Zealand aircraft (ZK-SUJ).
The 747-400 freighter conversions show, just like the continued use of passenger examples by secondary operators, that some 747-400s lead useful lives after they leave their initial operators, as does the third broad area of usage for ageing 747s: platforms for niche roles.
For example, 747-41R G-VWOW (c/n 32745), used by Virgin Atlantic Airways from new in October 2001, now operates with sister company Virgin Orbit as N744VG from Mojave, California, as the launch platform for the company’s LauncherOne rocket to put small satellite payloads into orbit.
Although they are older 747SPs rather than 747-400s, other ex-airline Jumbos to have found new niche uses are the two Pratt & Whitney Engine Services flying testbeds, C-FPAW (c/n 21934) and C-GTFF (c/n 22484), respectively ex-Air China and Korean Air Lines aircraft, and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy N747NA (c/n 24441) operated jointly by NASA and the DLR (German Aerospace Center), a former Pan Am and United machine.
Although 747s serve in the ACMI charter role, undergo conversion to cargo aircraft or do something diff erent, Jumbos with secondary careers are generally exceptions. Most retired 747s are in indefinite long-term storage.
Mark Gregory, the Chief Executive of Air Salvage International, observed to AIR International: “There are probably more 747s parked up and stored than there are operating at the moment.”
This situation, along with the continued drawdown of 747 fleets, makes life difficult for companies like ASI, a provider of professional asset management services for banks, lessors, insurance companies and commercial airlines. When commercial aircraft are disassembled, the parts stripped from the aircraft by specialists like ASL go to traders who put them back into the supply chain. The section of this market relating to the 747 is challenging nowadays.
Gregory explained: “Going back 15 years, 744s [747-400s] we were working on were 30- plus years old; now the 744s we are working on are probably 22 to 25 years old. That’s the average age. There are very few parts out there with very few [airlines] to support.
“If we are dismantling a 747-400 for a parts trader, we are probably removing no more than about 500 parts. If the aircraft is being taken apart for an operator who’s continuing to operate the aircraft there’ll be far more parts coming off the aircraft; we could be upwards of 2,000 parts.”
The value of aircraft to be dismantled is subject to the remaining useful life left on equipment such as landing gears, wheels, brakes, the auxiliary power unit, flying controls, avionics, escape slides and parts of the environmental control system.
As an aircraft fleet reduces, the number of parts reduces, because parts are only required for an aircraft on ground situation or if there were limited parts in the shop or operators’ spares holdings. The dwindling 747 fleet over the long term therefore means it is not a desirable aircraft for parts traders or teardown specialists like ASL.
Gregory said: “It’s a big machine, few parts come off it and very little sales are gained from it. If it’s got more than three years remaining on the landing gears, then they’d be good to remove; if it’s less than three years then we wouldn’t bother removing them because there’s no point putting them through the shop, as there’s plenty of gears out there.”
Reflecting this situation, Gregory said two 747-400s that will arrive at ASL’s facility at Cotswold Airport, Kemble by the end of 2019 will not be stripped for the parts trade, but instead will be stripped to keep supporting the operator’s remaining aircraft. At Kemble, ASL has 170,000ft2 (15,793m2) of hangarage, including a climate-controlled engine bay/ avionics depot and parking for up to 20 widebody and 50 narrowbody aircraft.
Gregory said: “It’ll get to the stage where there’s just too many out there and [the market] will just flatline. Take the engines off, take a few other key parts off – you’re down to 20–30 parts on the aircraft and that’s it really; the rest won’t go back into the supply chain.
“I’ve got a feeling a lot of parts traders are actually moving away from 747s and they would probably work with the airline or lessor that had the aircraft rather than purchase the aircraft [and] get it consigned.”
Boeing 747-8 Freighter
Most examples of the latest-generation 747-8 flying in the future will be 747-8 Freighters. The 747-8F has a cavernous 30,288ft3 (857m3) volume with 34 positions for 8 x 10ft (2.4 x 3m) contoured pallets on the main deck and 12 positions on the lower deck, where there is also space for two additional LD-1 or LD-3 containers. Cargolux quotes a maximum revenue payload of 295,000lb (134,000kg) for the aircraft.
As well as high capacity, the 747-8F off ers operational flexibility, thanks to the multiple loading points: the distinctive upwards-swinging nose cargo door and the main deck cargo doors on either side of the rear fuselage.
At the time of writing in October 2019, a total of 87 747-8Fs were in use by the large cargo airlines that ply the trunk routes connecting the key air cargo hubs worldwide such as Frankfurt, Anchorage, Dubai, Singapore and Dallas/Fort Worth.
Cargolux and Cathay Pacific Cargo each have 14 examples. UPS Airlines has 12 and, with 16 more due for delivery by 2022, this carrier will become the lead operator. The other 747-8Fs are operated by AirBridgeCargo (seven), Atlas Air (ten), Korean Air Cargo (seven), Nippon Cargo Airlines (eight), Silk Way Airlines (five), Volga-Dnepr Airlines (six), and four with customers officially listed as unidentified, but who include Saudia and Qatar Airways Cargo.
Boeing has sold 107 747-8Fs in all. Might there be more sales? As the aircraft serves the higher-capacity end of the air cargo market, probably not that many more in the short term at least. Notwithstanding how a marginal number of sales is inevitable for an aircraft like this (only so many airlines require an aircraft of the 747-8F’s capacity), ultimately with the major cargo specialists all putting the type into service recently their requirements have arguably already been filled, which lessens the prospect for further sales.
An added pressure to the 747-8F’s commercial prospects is that, mirroring the popularity of the twin-engine passenger aircraft, there is more interest in efficient twin-jet widebody cargo aircraft such as the 777 Freighter. A ready feedstock of older medium-sized twin jets creates opportunities for freighter conversions, too. Not even the 747-8F is protected from the twin-jet tide, even though it fills a valuable niche in air cargo thanks to its capacity.
Reflecting this situation, Boeing’s latest Commercial Market Outlook predicts the share of the market held by large widebody freighters such as 747-8Fs and converted 747-400s will decline from 29% to 25% over the next 20 years, while the fleet share of medium-sized freighters like 777Fs will grow by 3%.