EVERETT, Wash. -- Boeing's sprawling Everett plant was first constructed in the 1960s to assemble one airplane: the 747.
Since then, the company began building its 767 there, then expanded the factory in the 1990s to build the 777, and now also assembles the 787 Dreamliner under its massive roof as well.
With concerns growing that Boeing could go through with its search for a new location for the 777X and build that jet in another state by 2020, would the world's biggest building become mostly an empty shell? In other words, would the 747 be gone too? Some analysts like Leeham and Co. Scott Hamilton thinks the 45-year-old jet program will fade away around the same time. Boeing does not.
So we could see this airplane in 2030?
Boeing Vice President and 747 Chief Project Engineer Bruce Dickinson said, "Oh, absolutely. We are absolutely planning to that and working to that."
Boeing just delivered the first of its new 747-8 Freighters with the new (PIP) or performance improvement package that boosts the plane's fuel efficiency another 1.8%, making it 16% percent better than the 747-400 it replaces. Dickinson contends that the 1.8% saves an airline about a million dollars worth of fuel each year. The PIP program that's been in testing for months involves software and hardware refinements to the 747's GEnx engines.
The question is just how many 747s Boeing might end up building going forward. Production stands at one and one half 747s a month, down from two airplanes a month earlier this year. Most 747-8s are freighters designed to carry high value goods from electronics to perishables, even high-end clothing, where shipping time matters.
"It's a unique airplane in terms of its capabilities as a freighter," said Bob Dahl, Managing Director of the Air Cargo Management Group in Seattle, a company that's closely tracked the air cargo market for decades.
Boeing's 747-8 Intercontinental passenger plane faces stiff competition from the Airbus 380 with two full decks that holds well above 500 seats vs. 467 for the 747-8i. But Boeing says the 747 can get into as many as 160 airports that can't handle the A380, either because of its size or airports that are located at high altitudes or in hot climates. Example: Lufthansa flies the 747-8i in and out of Mexico City. Lufthansa is also an operator of a large A380 fleet between Frankfort and other large hubs like New York.
But Dahl says the A380 does not come as a freighter, and that's unlikely to change. Plans during the plane's early development to offer it as a package freighter for airlines like Fed Ex and UPS were dropped. Dahl says even so called "belly space" where airlines carry air freight under the feet of passengers is less than ideal on the A380.
That leaves the 747-8 Freighter in a class by itself.
"The name of the game in the freight business is typically that bigger is better," said Dahl., “that the larger airplanes typically have a lower cost per ton mile."
The 747-8 Freighter also has a hinged nose where it can be loaded with long loads.
Dahl believes that's good news for the long term future of the 747-8 Freighter, which originally rolled out as a cargo hauling jet and comprises most of the orders. But he says freighters are small in number when compared to passenger planes. And he adds that the freight market has struggled for more than a decade to get above a growth rate of three percent a year, despite projections that cargo growth would return to five or six percent a year.
The market's also been soft for large passenger jets like the A380 and the 747 in 2013.
The question for Boeing, can it produce 747-8s at a rate of more than a couple each month despite forecasts for a longer lifeline.