Aviation News

February 14, 2011

Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental Ready to Roll, Hoping to Sell

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By: John Harrell
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The first 747-8 Intercontinental slated for delivery under construction. Launch customer Lufthansa will be receiving this particular aircraft. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/NYCAviation)
The first 747-8 Intercontinental slated for delivery under construction. Launch customer Lufthansa will be receiving this particular aircraft. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/NYCAviation)
EVERETT, Wash.—In a building large enough to generate its own weather systems, an enormous, two-storied airplane stands ready at the exit doors, waiting only for The Boeing Company to give it permission to leave.

The first-ever 747-8 Intercontinental, to be delivered to launch customer Lufthansa and still carrying green protective coating, is a whopping 250 feet 2 inches (76.3 meters) long and has a tail reaching more than 63 feet (19.2 meters) above the concrete floor. A single aft stabilizer of the new jumbo is as long as the wing of a Boeing 737, says tour guide and Boeing Visitor Relations Specialist Wes Bare on a media tour of the factory floor. On the eve of its public debut, none of the media know what the first of these new planes will look like in paint, and Boeing isn’t talking. But one thing is certain from Bare’s serpentine tour of the assembly line: This plane is, in a word, enormous.

In a three-class cabin of 467 passengers—though airlines can alter the final capacity if they wish—the Intercontinental could carry the entire U.S. House of Representatives with 32 seats left over. The jumbo jet’s wings, Bare says, are each large enough to hide nine people inside them at once. On Lufthansa’s U.S. routes, the plane will be interchangeable with the 747-400 where the German carrier currently uses the older model, including to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark’s Liberty International Airport, says Martin Riecken, Lufthansa’s director of corporate communications for the Americas.

The plane’s larger size, says Riecken, gives Lufthansa room to increase capacity on 747 routes with high passenger volume. “[The 747-8] gives us possibility to . . . grow with the market,” he says, “because right now what we see on some 747 routes [is that the airline is] still operating a very, very high load factor, even though we know there’s no potential to grow.” The new plane solves that problem, says Riecken, by adding new seats to crowded routes, thereby expanding capacity.

That newfound growth potential comes from the Intercontinental’s extended fuselage, which is not only longer than its older-generation counterparts in the 747 program, but out-stretches the world’s current leader in lengthiness, the Airbus A340-600. The Lufthansa plane at the factory doors is about 18 feet longer than the thirty 747-400s now in service at the airline. A stretch of the plane’s signature hump adds an extra 13 feet 4 inches of cabin on both decks, and an additional stretch of the lower deck’s midsection gives 5 more feet, both of which can translate into increased passenger load.

(Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Mood Lighting

But an increase in passengers doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in crampedness—at least not on the basis of the Boeing-built mockup cabin on display in Renton, Wash. Stepping into the model is like walking onto a large, open-spaced ship, a far cry from negotiating a 737 galley on the way to a squeezed economy area. That spacious feel is part of the design—and the psychology—of the 747-8’s new cabin, says Colleen E. Rainbolt, a Boeing regional director of passenger satisfaction and revenue, as she guides reporters through the forward cabins of the lower deck.

Take the blue LED lighting on the mockup ceiling, for example. “Creating the feeling of there being a sky overhead really helps us to open up the airplane and make it feel more spacious,” says Rainbolt. The overhead storage system, too—a feature shared with the 787 Dreamliner program—helps toward an open feel, she says, indicating the curved shelves that stow away by sliding upward toward the ceiling, clearing the space for passengers’ heads. “The bins on the airplane are designed to push up and out of [passengers’] visual space as much as [possible],” she says.

Even the fuselage’s design by itself adds to passengers’ comfort level, says T. Hazari, another regional director of passenger satisfaction and revenue—which means that a 747, with its vertical cabin walls, is already well-positioned to make passengers feel good. “It’s not so much the seat width that sets the [passenger’s] comfort preference,” says Hazari. “We found there was a strong correlation on passenger preference on cabins that had more of a vertical sidewall,” unlike aircraft with greater curvature in the seating area, Hazari says.

But even fliers in the most curved part of the plane—the flight deck—may discover added comfort, according to Capt. Mark Feuerstein, chief pilot for the 747. Pilots entering the new cockpit for the first time, he says, will encounter not only the technology of a new generation of aircraft, but also the consistent feel of the planes they’ve learned to fly already. “While you get the latest and greatest in avionics and capabilities at the fingertips of the pilots,” he says, “they’re going to know where they are, they’re going to feel right at home.” The available flight-deck lavatory on the Intercontinental, an option Feuerstein says Lufthansa has taken, probably helps as well.

Happy Face

Yet even with the improved amenities in the model cabin and a flight deck hospitable for pilots, will the 747-8 actually sell? Even the 787 Dreamliner, whose production has been riddled with setbacks, still had 847 announced orders at the end of January, compared to only 107 for the 747-8, thirty-three of which are the passenger version. Why does the updated two-story jumbo, the newest generation of a successful, decades-long jet program, have so few orders pending?

Randy Tinseth, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president, marketing, explains that the smaller number of orders can be traced to the global economic crisis, but that at Boeing, “we expected this market to be much smaller” than the market for smaller heavies like the 787 and 777. Plus, he says, as many carriers’ existing 747s turn 20 years old in the next five years—and there will be 200 or 300 such planes—customers will turn to using the 747-8 to replace those retirees. That bodes well for sales, Tinseth says.

The unveiling of the first plane comes as the 787’s delays remain very much a part of the background for Boeing. So does Airbus, whose A380 boasts a three-class cabin of 525 seats, just a handful shy of an entire joint session of Congress, a far greater seating load than the Intercontinental seeks to carry. Even lufthansa.com has switched its homepage photo to feature not a 747 as it used to, but Airbus’ now-signature superjumbo.

Yet even with the two elephants in Boeing’s room—the 787 and the A380—Sunday is Boeing’s day, the company’s time to introduce the world to the latest variation in its most easily identifiable passenger plane. Meanwhile, the Lufthansa bird behind the factory doors waits, unpainted but with engines and landing gear attached, ready to roll out as soon as Boeing gives the word.