Boeing finally conceded publicly Tuesday that while the all-cargo model of its 747 jumbo jet will continue to sell, the longtime “Queen of the Skies” has no future as a passenger plane.
Differing sharply with the outlook from rival Airbus, Boeing expressed extreme doubt about the entire “very large aircraft” segment of the passenger-jet business and projected that the days of the Airbus A380 superjumbo are also numbered.
Boeing’s latest annual 20-year market forecast, presented Tuesday at the Paris Air Show by Vice President of Marketing Randy Tinseth, projects very healthy demand during the next two decades for more than 41,000 new airplanes.
But that rosy overall outlook contrasts with Boeing’s prediction for the niche occupied by the 747 and the A380, which typically seat 410 and 544 passengers, respectively.
“We don’t see significant demand for passenger 747-8s or A380s,” Tinseth said in an earlier briefing embargoed until his presentation in Paris.
He said Boeing in the years ahead expects to sell “just a handful” of nonfreighter versions of the 747, consisting of VIP private planes for foreign heads of state plus the two or three heavily modified 747s that will be supplied to serve as the Air Force One planes for the U.S. president.
“We don’t see much demand for really big airplanes,” Tinseth said. Furthermore, he added, “we find it hard to believe Airbus will be able to deliver the rest of their A380s in backlog.”
The Boeing 747, with its instantly recognizable forward hump, is an icon of the aviation world.
The initial model, designed and built by a Boeing team dubbed “The Incredibles” and led by legendary engineer Joe Sutter, carried two and a half times as many passengers as the company’s first international jet plane, the 707.
The 747’s immense size, long range and fast speed helped transform international-air travel in the ’70s and ’80s from the domain of the wealthy to something accessible to the masses of the middle class.
Boeing has delivered 1,552 jumbo jets since the first 747 in January 1970. Nearly four out of five were passenger models.
But the market for the plane has eroded over time as airlines have switched from four-engine to more fuel-efficient twin-engine jets.
At the same time, route networks have evolved to support smaller planes flying more frequently and directly, rather than big planes going through giant hubs.
At the end of May, Boeing had just five unfilled orders left for the current model 747-8 passenger jet, including three for bankrupt Russian carrier Transaero that may or may not find a home elsewhere.
Airbus has just more than 100 orders for the superjumbo A380 remaining in its backlog.
“The biggest airplane in the market moving forward will be the 777X,” Tinseth said.
A year ago, Boeing was predicting that over 20 years the world’s airlines would require 430 deliveries of 747s and A380s. This year the very large segment isn’t broken out separately and the whole wide-body category is reduced by 290 airplanes compared to the year-ago figure.
Boeing’s separate forecast of 920 freighter jets needed over the next 20 years projects that about 550 aircraft will be large widebody freighters, meaning 747s or 777s.
This Boeing forecast for the biggest jets is in sharp contrast to the Airbus global-market forecast released earlier this month.
Airbus, still a believer, projects a 20-year market for 1,184 “very large” passenger jets with more than 400 seats.
And though the A380 is clearly in real trouble with zero net orders since 2015, the European jet maker still hopes it can sell more.
In Paris, Airbus announced Monday a study to add winglets to make the A380 more fuel-efficient and a denser seat configuration to improve its economics.
Boeing, though, has stopped trying to further develop its 747. As a passenger jet, it’s fading fast.
According to a database maintained by FlightGlobal, 253 passenger 747s are still flying worldwide.
Another 374 freighter versions are still operating, along with 34 that are government owned or VIP private models.
Blue chip carriers Air France, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have all retired their 747 fleets. And this year United and Delta, the only remaining U.S. airlines flying 747s, are set to retire their last jumbos.
While Boeing’s forecast sounds a death knell for the 747, otherwise its projections are glowing.
Global-passenger traffic continues on its steady, 5 percent per year longtime upward trend.
Despite all the geopolitical dangers in the world today, airlines have mushroomed, creating fierce competition and lower fares that boost demand in emerging markets, especially in China and Southeast Asia.
Last year, air travel worldwide piled up 3.3 billion passenger trips. Boeing projects that to grow to 7.5 billion by 2036.
Along with air travel in developing economies, demand will be driven by the emergence of new low-cost carriers and the need to replace aging aircraft, Tinseth said. In addition, he said, new airplanes will “reshape the market” by connecting pairs of cities that don’t have direct service today.
So Boeing projects demand for a total of 41,030 new airplanes in the next two decades.
That includes almost 30,000 single-aisle planes like the 737 MAX, as well as more than 5,000 small widebody jets like the 787 Dreamliner, and 3,000 large widebody jets like the 777X.
Boeing projects that almost 6,000 of the current worldwide fleet of commercial airplanes will still be flying in 2036, which means the world’s fleet will double in the coming two decades, from 23,480 planes now to 46,950 planes two decades out.
How long can 747 production in Everett continue?
That’s entirely up to the cargo-jet market now.
Tinseth said there’s currently still more supply than demand for air-cargo capacity in the market, but Boeing notes an uptick recently and is projecting 3.5 to 4 percent cargo traffic growth for this year.
Boeing has just 15 unfilled 747 freighter orders in its backlog.
At the current slow production rate of one every two months, that backlog plus the few passenger jets remaining will keep it going through to the end of 2019, when Boeing should be making the next generation of Air Force One jets.
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