SEATTLE -- A big order from cargo carrier UPS has breathed new life into Boeing's 747 program.
Boeing executives in recent months were conceding the 747 production line might shut down. But UPS on Thursday announced it was ordering 14 new 747-8 freighters with an option for 14 more.
"We do see this as a really important bridge to buy us that time," says Bruce Dickinson, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 747 and 767 programs. "To really see the large freighter market recover, hopefully, and we're really going to be a big part of that future."
At a production rate of 1/2 airplane per month, or six per year, the UPS represents about two years and three months of work. The number essentially doubles the current backlog for the jet from 15 to 29. Another previously announced order from Russian freight carrier Air Bridge could add another 13 to that total once that deal has been finalized.
UPS flies 747 freighters now, but they are all older 747-400s. Brendan Canavan, who heads UPS Airlines, says the aircraft are part of a "strategic investment for increased capacity."
The spongy world cargo market has proved frustrating for freighter manufacturers for years. The 747 freighter occupies a unique space in the market, not only for its size but the fact that long cargo can be loaded through the nose. But the program has still struggled to garner orders.
Boeing remains optimistic that the cargo business will turn around. This week at the gathering of the International Air Cargo Association in Paris, the company forecast that e-commerce will become a bigger and bigger driver.
UPS is very much connected to e-commerce. UPS says that the 747-8 freighter can carry 30-thousand packages nearly 5,000 statute miles. The airline says the planes will be delivered between 2017 and 2020. The planes are slated primarily for its growing international routes.
But the 747 freighter has competition too, from belly space under the floor of larger passenger airliners, and newer freighter versions of passenger jets like the Boeing 777. Dickinson saying the world will need more than 550 large cargo freighters including the 777 as discussions with airlines for more sales continue.