THE curtain seems poised to fall on an era that began more than four decades ago. The B747, Boeing’s iconic flagship since 1969, is edging ever closer to the exit. For the first time the plane maker itself has admitted that the end may be near.
For the long term this heralds a payload limit for scheduled freighter operations in the 105-ton bracket, when the B777-200F becomes the largest cargo aircraft in scheduled service. It also raises questions for shippers and forwarders who rely on the 747 for its nose loading capability to accommodate outsize shipments that do not fit through cargo doors in the fuselage.
The writing for the 747 has been on the wall since international carriers started phasing out their 747 fleets, replacing them with 777s, 787s and A350s. The slumps in oil prices may have slowed the urgency of getting rid of four-engine wide bodies, but the trend is irreversible. Some carriers have decided they don’t want to wait. United Airlines recently speeded up the exodus of 747s from its line-up, which is now set to be completed by the end of 2018.
Some years ago the exit of many 747s from passenger service would have made conversion specialists rub their hands, but the 747 conversion scene has resembled a graveyard for a while already. As airlines are getting rid of 747-400BCFs and even 747-400 production freighters in rising numbers, planes are heading straight out of service to the desert with no prospect of flying again.
Meanwhile Boeing has struggled with the 747-8 programme. The passenger variant barely picked up any orders, and the freighter programme was limping towards the sunset before Volga-Dnepr’s eyebrow-raising order for 20 units injected a sense of revival into it, but that proved less potent than it may have seemed at first glance. According to some pundits, several of the planes were unsold units originally built for other customers. Since then there have been few new orders (in April Boeing announced that an undisclosed client had signed up for four aircraft).
When that order was revealed back in April, Randy Tinseth, Boeing Marketing Vice-President, remarked that the company was expecting global trade to pick up this year, which could increase air cargo demand by 3 to 4 percent. As the anticipated recovery recedes further and further into the future, that scenario was becoming ever more tenuous.
Boeing management had banked on the expectation that operators of 747-400Fs would replace these with 747-8s, especially across the Pacific. However, Carriers like China Southern or EVA Air have shifted to 777 freighters instead.
Other airlines are simply doing with fewer freighters. Over the past decade, Singapore Airlines’ freighter fleet has shrunk from 17 to nine B747s, and management has signalled plans to drop two more.
The manufacturer’s output of 747-8s has sunk steadily. In 2013 it was turning out two 747-8s in a month, but that was throttled back in stages to just one in two months. The shift from 12 to six unites a year due to kick in in September, was supposed to be temporary, but in July management shelved those plans. Instead, it signalled that the end of the road may not be far ahead.
In its latest filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission dated 27 July, Boeing acknowledged the possible termination of 747 production. Without sufficient new order and/or an inability to mitigate market, production and other risks, “it is reasonably possible that we could decide to end production of the 747,” it stated.
This would be a concern for shippers of outsize cargo that does not fit through the side door of a wide body freighter. According to a senior executive of a large Asian freighter operator, less than 10 percent of its cargo requires nose loading.
Ron Buschman, Managing Director of charter broker and airline GSA Aerodyne Cargo Services, sees little impact outside some specific niches. “There are few markets other than oil and gas and mining that require nose loading,” he remarked.
Stan Wraight, Senior Executive Director of Strategic Aviation Solutions International, noted that nose loading only works for cargo with a height up to 96 inches.
“You can always find a solution,” commented Buschman. In most cases outsize loads can be trucked to an airport served by a 747 freighter. If needs be, an Antonov 124 can be chartered.
Ram Menen, the former Head of Cargo at Emirates Airlines, sees another alternative on the horizon. In the future airships will compete for outsize loads that currently must go on 747s or larger cargo planes, he said.
~ Source: Voice of the Independent, August 2016, No.056
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This post was written by Louisa