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Boeing 747 Tries to Stay Relevant


Once viewed as the world's premier airplane, the Boeing (BA) 747, after four decades of flying, now fills a very narrow niche.

The 747 has seen its mission shrink as competing aircrafts have become available during the past two decades. The Airbus A340 entered service in 1993 and can fly longer trips. The Boeing 777 entered service in 1995 and is more fuel efficient. The A380 entered service in 2007 and carries more passengers.

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In its glory, the 747, the first wide-body aircraft, began flying for Pan American World Airways in 1970. Boeing has produced more than 1,400 of them. Last October, it delivered the first 747-8, the latest model, to Luxembourg's CargoLux. The first passenger version was sold Tuesday to an unidentified VIP customer. Cargo airplanes account for 60 of the 96 orders for the 747-8.

"The 747 has truly become a niche airplane," aviation consultant Scott Hamilton says. "That is part of the progression for an aging airplane. It's still a good cargo airplane."

The 747-8 "was basically a tactical response to the A380," which came to market in 2000, Hamilton says. "Had it been on time, it probably would have been more successful." Instead, the first delivery was two years late.

The 747's decline as a passenger aircraft is perhaps best illustrated by Singapore Airlines' recent announcement that it will make its last 747 flights April 6, after operating the aircraft for 38 years.

For years, Singapore was the world's largest 747 operator, with 37 aircrafts flying from the Singapore hub. But Singapore was the launch customer for the A380 and now flies 16 of them. It also operates five A340-500s and 77 Boeing 777s. In other words, all three 747 replacements are in the Singapore fleet.

"The 747 doesn't have range to go from Singapore nonstop to some destinations we serve," Singapore spokesman James Boyd says. That shortcoming made Singapore a leader in operating flights under aviation's "fifth freedom" right, which enables a carrier flying from its home country to a second country to make a passenger stop in a third country.

Singapore's four U.S. destinations provide examples of the shift. On the Singapore-Newark route, the 747 made a fuel stop in Amsterdam. But in 2004 Singapore replaced the 747 with an A340-500 and dropped the stop, because the A340-500 flies nonstop on the 10,381-mile route, the longest in commercial aviation. The aircraft has just 100 seats, all business class.

On the Singapore-Frankfurt-New York Kennedy route, the carrier began A380 service in January, replacing a 747-400 but keeping the intermediate stop.

Twice-daily Singapore-San Francisco flights were operated with an A340 and a 747. In 2009, the airplanes were replaced with 777-300 extended-range jets that stop in Seoul and Hong Kong.

Singapore-Los Angeles is operated with an Airbus A340-500 and is the world's longest-duration flight at 18 hours and 30 minutes, making it about 40 minutes longer than the Newark flight. In 2004, the A340 replaced a 747 flight and a Taipei stop was eliminated. Also, an A380 replaced a 747 last year and operates Singapore-Tokyo-Los Angeles.

Boeing says it's too early to count the 747 out. "There is still quite a significant market for the airplane, and orders will continue to pick up asitenters service and people see what it can do," Boeing spokesman Jim Prouix says. Over the next 20 years, Boeing sees a market for about 800 aircraft with more than 400 seats or equivalent cargo space. "The 747-8 is a very strong competitor for those markets, and of those 800 airplanes, roughly 250 are for freighters -- of which we offer the only one," he said.

The Boeing 777 has around 300 seats, while the A380 has around 500. "The 747-8 slots right in between," Prouix says.

BB&T Capital Markets analyst Carter Leake is a fan of the 747-8. "I think the A380 was a decade too early," he says. "The 747-8 was the right move. The 747-400 (the previous model) was not competitive against the 380. You had to defend the space." The 747-400 was the previous model;

Prouix notes that since the 747-8 entered the market in November 2005, it has accumulated 131 orders and commitments, while the A380 has sold 121 airplanes. "More than half of the A380 order book came in before we even entered the market," he says.

Among U.S. carriers, the 747 has not been popular in recent years. "It doesn't fit the needs of U.S. carriers, as opposed to flag carriers of other nations, because you have so many interior cities in the U.S. that now have overseas service," Hamilton says. By contrast, when Pan Am and Northwest placed early 747 orders, service across the Atlantic and Pacific occurred from a very few airports, and big planes could be filled.

Today, United (UAL) and Delta (DAL) are the only U.S. passenger carriers operating 747s, generally on Asian routes. United has 23 of them, averaging about 16 years old. Delta has 15, acquired with Northwest.

Delta, in particular, sees a long life for its 747s and is upgrading the interiors with full flat-bed seats and other amenities. The upgrades, it says, "will make the 747 the premier aircraft in our international fleet."

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