24/01/2006 - 21:00

Sky queen’s new lease on life

24/01/2006 - 21:00


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There is nothing quite like the intimate first class in the nose of the 747 or the delightful ‘private jet’ feeling of business class in the upper deck on the ‘queen of the skies’.

Sky queen’s new lease on life

There is nothing quite like the intimate first class in the nose of the 747 or the delightful ‘private jet’ feeling of business class in the upper deck on the ‘queen of the skies’.

While the queen may have lost her crown as the largest passenger jet in the skies to the A380, thanks to a massive makeover announced by Boeing just before Christmas last year, she will remain the sleekest and fastest jumbo jet for decades to come.

It is without doubt a tribute to the magnificent design of the 747 that, nearly 40 years after the aircraft was designed, Boeing was able to launch yet another derivative – the 747-8 – last year.

Perhaps the secret to the 747’s longevity is the era in which it was built. The mid-1960s were heady times and the era of supersonic travel when all discussion revolved around super sonic transports (SSTs) replacing most aircraft on long-haul routes in the 1970s.

Thus the Boeing 747 design team was focused not only on speed but also on converting all 747s to a life of cargo when the SSTs entered service.

That design criteria led to many unique features – nose loading for cargo and a private first class cabin in the passenger version, intimate business class upper deck, and the crown for the fastest subsonic airliner – that make the 747 an enduring aircraft and the only jet ever designed from the outset for cargo conversion.

But being a timeless aircraft wasn’t on the minds of many when the 747 was launched in 1966. At the time, there were conditional orders for 115 Mach 2.5 Boeing 2707s from 25 airlines and 74 Concordes from 16 airlines.

However, on the occasion of the aircraft’s 30th year in service, the father of the 747 Joe Sutter was as proud as a father can be when he told WA Business News that “the 747 would be around for another 30 years”.

It was a bold statement indeed, made against a backdrop of the launch of the A380 and the many failed attempts by Boeing to commit to significant upgrades since the 747-400 rolled out in January 1988.

Perhaps when Mr Sutter made the prediction he had in mind a dramatic engine breakthrough similar to the one that made the 747 possible, giving the venerable jumbo yet another lease on life. For it is the high-tech engines, designed for the 787, that promise to give the 747 a real kick in performance.

In fact, at the launch of the 787 two years ago, Cathay Pacific Airways COO Tony Tyler told WA Business News that the airline was “delighted with the 787’s launch because of what it means for the 747 [-8]”.

These engines have enabled Boeing to develop the new model – the 747-8 – which is 3.6 metres longer than the –400, can carry 34 more passengers and fly them 1,570 kilometres further than the 747-400.

The 747-8 freighter variant is 5.6m longer and provides 21 per cent more volume and a cargo capacity of 140 tonnes – well up from the 747-400s 113t.

The new engines mean the 747-8 burns 13 per cent less fuel and is 30 per cent quieter than the 747-400.

The combination of the new engines and significant modifications to the wing enable Boeing to guarantee airlines 8 per cent lower seat costs than the 747-400 and 6 per cent below the 555-seat A380, and trip costs at least 22 per cent less than the A380. Key to that claim is the fact that the 747-8 weighs 13 per cent less per seat than the A380.

Boeing expects to roll-out the first 747-8 freighter in the third quarter of 2008, with an entry into service in September 2009. The passenger variant will enter service in early 2010.

The new 747 interior has come in for an extreme makeover.

Boeing’s regional director-product marketing, Anita Polt, admits that “bringing passengers in through the galleys” has not been a good look.

Boeing has responded aggressively. The entry now looks like that of a five-star cruise ship with the staircase offset to the far side of the main-deck cabin and Boeing has added three windows in the roof above the staircase to the upper deck.

Domed ceiling and a concierge station that doubles as a mini lounge during the flight complete the entry area makeover.

From the 777 comes the sculptured interior that gives passengers 15 per cent more storage space, while those in the upper deck will get a 100 per cent increase in storage space.

The aircraft will have LED mood lighting as standard, will be e-enabled, have lighter 787 interior components and incorporate 787 space age toilets.

The vacant crown space in the 747 has come in for special attention, with Boeing constructing a mock-up for Sky Suites and a business centre.

Sky Suites would accommodate 14 first class, 24 business class or 40 economy bunks. With the move to first and business class beds on the main deck, it is more likely that the space will be used for premium economy beds or a business centre.

Boeing is bullish it can secure about 400 to 500 orders for its 747-8 by pitching its “Why invest in the all new A380 when you can buy a handful of 747-8s to complement your 747 fleet?” argument.

Former British Airways CEO Rod Eddington confided to WA Business News in late September 2005 that his favoured solution for the replacement of BA’s 57 747-400s was a mix of 777-300ERs and 747-8s.

He said he “preferred to see the A380 in airline service before making a commitment. BA doesn’t need to make a decision for a few years yet so we have the luxury of observing the A380 in service.”

Other targets for Boeing include Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines. The Singapore-based airline is expected to order 747-8s early next month.


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