The Chart:

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Boeing 747: An analysis of observations.

 Now that the 747 program is coming into the home strait, I'm going to list out here several observations to answer a few questions here. These are just what has been gleaned of the internet which means that it has the risk of being grossly inaccurate. Before we delve into this, all the information here is based on fact but is in fact not factual. I also don't want this to be construed as pure speculation as that has no value. So with that out of the way, lets begin.


A) The absolute state of the 747 program in 2021.

I will start with stating that the program is now near its end. There is less than 1 years worth of production remaining, and the firing order for the last frames reflect this. It appears that parts manufacturing is complete, although I have no way to confirm this. Recently, Triumph made a few statements with regard to its wrapping up of its contract with BCA and its share of the 747 work. Its likely that other primarily structural subcontractors will be in a similar position, looking to close the chapter on this part of the manufacturing. The program will not be totally dead after the last frame is built, as spares will continue to be manufactured so long as the BCA can justify a market for those spares.

Production will continue to wind down or if not would have already concluded such an exercise.  

With this in mind, we have to ask the question whether the 747 is still being offered for sale to Any Potential buyer, and what the stipulations are if indeed there is a genuine offer to buy. Although I doubt that there is any serious interest, there is likely still, some marketing activity, but likely this will follow the pattern in recent years, whereby any such interest is possibly shunted to other models which can perform most of the functions of the 747 and will meet newer emissions criterion.

A new buyer will have to take this into consideration, making the prospect of new sales very unattractive. This is the blurb as understood by myself. It is not facts, but from this perspective, the revival of this program is very remote. 

In this regard it is clear that a new order for new frames will have to be substantially significant. It is likely that BCA, will demand, a fixed number of frames that will allow it to absorb the costs of re mobilizing parts of the program that are now gearing to be shutdown or have already shutdown. 

This will not be a cheap exercise. If such an order is placed, it is likely, that the production rate will increase to 1 or 2 per month in order to maintain some kind of economy of scale or pace of production, meaning that any new buyer will have to fund these rate increases. I have no idea of how many minimum frames are necessary, but it is likely in excess of 25 to 30 frames and this is a low estimate.

In my honest opinion, BCA may look for new suppliers that can reduce this upfront cost. The new supplier must have previous paperwork regarding their parts and manufacturing processes as being certified as suitable for the manufacture of such structures, meaning that such a pool of suppliers would be very small indeed. This could be a nasty bottleneck that makes any attempt at revival a much more remote exercise. Also if BCA does delve into such a revival, it may choose other suppliers to replace current ones. It is unclear if BCA would take any legal action nor are there any legal-esq type of actions required or necessary to settle any disputes with their current suppliers.

B) Current Specification. (Freighter)

I will base this commentary on the sales performance of the current models. It is clear that they are not suited well to the current market. Most of the sales occurred before the projected EIS, and because of delays, the sales performance of these 2 models was greatly impaired. The program struggled to find new buyers, due to the easy availability of alternatives that were better suited to the market conditions at the time. The marketing focused too much on existing capabilities and never offered more than it had guaranteed to the customer at the specification that BCA had presented. This is normal for any airplane program, however BCA could have offered a better spec for the type, they did however, spend money to improve the base spec significantly, but this did not translate to better sales.

This pattern is what can be gleaned from the information available at the time. There were numerous RFP's and the 747 was put forth as one of the solutions only to be turned down by the customer. One of the major setbacks, in my opinion, was the lack of an engine choice, being that BCA had not shopped around for an alternative to offer during the early phases of the program, or stuck to its exclusivity agreement with GE. I cannot comment on the veracity of this statement, except that this remains true till the present, meaning you can only order today, a New 747 with GE engines only.

For the Freighter, the specification offered by BCA is consistent with a stretched and re-engined 747. The current models offers a 22 ton payload differential with the 747 classic freighter, which if you take into account the stretched fuselage would account for this increase. Range is also increased by roughly 1000 NM. This advantage makes it very attractive to Airlines that have the financial wherewithal to purchase the current models as their business is suitably robust to justify the purchase. However, smaller Airlines could purchase a similar capability at much less cost, and this has been self evident during the current pandemic outbreak.

Regardless of which model (of 747 Freighter) was purchased, the limiting factor was not range nor payload and as with the case of the 747 classic, the payload exceeds what can be produced today using newer designs and with the current model, far exceeds anything that can be made in the near to short term. 

In Fact, the limiting factors for a Freighter is Age, Engine Type, High Cycles and Hours. This means that the high cost of performing expensive structural checks will continue to plague the type into the future. At a certain point, the cost of maintaining it far exceed the revenue generation potential as based on the current value of the frame, and although this applies to all aircraft, it applies more profoundly on the 747, which is much larger and a much older design than most jetliners in service today. This issue however has not hindered Airlines with the capital and resources to buy 747's, from buying them new or 2nd hand, because the payload capability is unmatched, and will unlikely ever to be matched in the future by newer carbon fiber designs or a suitably rigged 777.

However despite this, BCA appears to not see a business case for the 747 going forward. This is most likely due the ability of the customer Airline not being able to fill the volume space in the allotted time between flights and the excess volume, which is still usable, being empty. According to other sources (Not listed) The inability to fill this space in the 747 Freighter led BCA to develop the business case for the 777F and whilst not on par with the 747 in terms of payload, is economically viable in that there is less space to fill, in short the downsizing exercise is to increase the efficiency of an airlines cargo operations.

This is expected of course going forward, but there is the question of said airlines buying 747 Freighters for just this payload capability in the first place, some of whom have testified positively in this regard. Whilst this is Hearsay at best, these airlines have amassed sizable fleets of  747 Freighters and have no problem it seems finding a market for their commodity. In fact the reactivation of  retired 2nd hand aircraft in recent years may be an indication that there is a buoyant market for the 747, but this only manifests itself in used aircraft. This however merely an observation.

C) Image

The 747 has suffered the negative effects of its own longevity. The are many published articles that state that the aircraft is ripe for retirement. This is actually true, but that does not mean that the design has been abandoned, and again with available evidences, (again not listed), BCA has attempted to improve its design as has been stated.

This contrasts with the wide public view that look upon the type favorably. The source of this praise and admiration is due to the types many appearances in film, advertising, books, toys, model kits etc etc. The 747 has become an aircraft that has become a staple or household name as many persons who have no interest or association with aviation can pick out the name and even identify a 747 in among all the myriad of other types at an airport. This appeared to be a selling point, and has led airlines to use 747s in their marketing until the types were retired from service. For current operators, the 747 is still a platform of choice for branding, even though larger or more efficient types have been introduced.

Overall, the public image and corporate image of the 747, stand in stark contrast. On the one hand, there are those that still admire the uncomfortable seat on their 747 classic, and on the other hand those that take on a more pragmatic view. The corporate image of the 747 as it is in 2021, is that it no longer fits the green marketing initiatives as these prioritize efficiency, cleanliness and environmental acceptability. BCA has tried in its marketing to counter this image but with little success for their efforts. Going forward the pressure from airlines to present eco-friendliness as a selling point has made its mark. However this is only one possible aspect as to why the 747 is not viewed with favor-ability even though it is a fully capable and competent product.

D) Full on replacement.

The blurb as written today presents a Narrative that describes the successive failures of BCA to market the 747 in today's ultra competitive market. It is true that the nature of the market has changed. The Airline Market today is not anything that most experts envisioned 15-20 years ago. Whilst this cannot be denied, It does not necessarily bode ill to every aspect of the 747.

The struggles faced by this program is mirrored in that of its competitor which shut down production this year. From a marketing perspective, both programs leveraged their size and uniqueness as selling points to Airlines, this worked for a time, but alternative solutions to carrying passengers changed the ways tickets were sold. Size, prestige and prominence played far less of a role in today's environment, which is dominated by LCCs.

The other half of the story is that of the Freighter version of this Airplane. The initial design requirements for the 747 fuselage cross section was NOT a passenger requirement, but a freighter requirement. It originated from the need of the aircraft to transition into a freighter after its initial use as a passenger plane. The passenger plane component of the Aircraft's initial mission was to be delegated to another project, that never materialized. This left 747 as the only solution for passenger transport, a role that has slowly taken 40 years for other types to completely supplant it.

Hence, the airframe as seen today, is solely optimized for freight, because it was designed as a freighter. The Nose Door to which has become a familiar feature is common on large freight planes and hence it is to be deduced that the aircraft was actually a freighter from the onset, fitted with seats and windows. Viewed from this light, it is clear the intentions of the designers. The high freight density that can be carried is almost a common feature on all versions of the 747, and as the DNA has not changed significantly, is likely that this was intended from the outset.

BCA has attempted to do 2 things with this. Firstly, it leveraged this as a selling point, secondly it has recently attempted to replace it entirely using other designs. Whilst these designs are focused of higher efficiency and economy, they are NOT optimized for Freight. The results are designs that cannot carry the higher freight density of the 747, and are physically larger in wingspan and length as compared to the original 747 based on current projections. This is however, likely to change moving forward.

E) Moving Towards Efficiency.

Moving a design like the 747 into a realm of increased efficiency is like an almost impossible task, as these considerations were not taken into account during the period when the aircraft was designed. The limitations of the design have already been exposed by its many years on the market as smaller types have slowly chipped away the competitive advantage. BCA has made substantial and successful efforts in improving the 747's payload range capability whilst attempting to address some of these issues. 

For example, the large capacity that the type offered. In many respects, this was the models greatest asset, yet it was also one if its biggest weaknesses. Smaller types offered an operator a simpler task of attempting to break even on a leg, but for the 747, some operators switched to smaller types a few years after delivery of their 747's. The smaller type offered better economics as this was what was believed at the time, yet despite this BCA managed to keep the 747 at the forefront of many Airlines Fleets for Years. 

It did this by partially leveraging the freight mission into the passenger model by offering a combi or joint freight and passenger model. It also offered bigger and more capable models to leverage the 'uniqueness and size' selling point to attract mainline carriers into buying more 747's.

Another Example would be the fuel burn of the original 747 vs that of the 400 series. It took roughly 20 years for there to be a significant improvement in fuel burn with some of it attributed to the introduction of FADEC system on the 747-400. The 747's resistance to change was mired in the fact that High Bypass Ratio Turbofan technology was in its infancy and the improvement of which, required investment and innovation which is a very expensive exercise. Despite having 3 types of engines available, all were constrained by the limiting factors (eg Fan Size) that slowed development which would have translated into improved fuel burn. However the design's longevity has allowed it for the first and only time, to be considered viable for current engines, even though this exercise is somewhat limited in improving the payload range capability of the current design.

Having said this, the current design of the 747 in 2021 is perhaps less efficient than it actually is made out to be , due to the fact that it was enlarged to meet the challenges of a competitor. With all of of the considerations taken to improve efficiency, little or no stock was placed on the existing efficiencies of the standard length 747 of 231 ft and 10 in. Bear in mind that this length of fuselage was predominantly the only size available for many years excluding the SP models which was designed to a different requirement. 

The point I'm simply making is, how much improvement is available to the shorter 747 body with 747-8 wings and engines? The economics of a passenger plane in this configuration, would have been outmoded today by the 777-300ER and a 747 in this passenger configuration would not offer compelling economics. However, No information is available on the comparative economics vs the 747-400, therefore I cannot make any suitable comparisons.

I am, however, inclined to believe whilst this configuration might not be suitable for passenger transport, there is some scope of a shortened 747-8F with a 231 ft and 10 in fuselage offering some kind of relief for existing operators of the 747-400F. The arguments for, are basically the Engine and Airframe commonality with the same freight loading density, better Fuel burn, Retention of the Nose door and identical pavement loading as the current 747-400. It won't offer the Fuel Burn and Lower Emissions of a newer design but it can offer improvements over existing Frames and if priced correctly can make a compelling case for extending production if the economics are suitably acceptable to a customer, in spite of all the other challenges. 

Availability would be sooner than the new designs currently being postulated as there is much less development work necessary to build a working demonstrator. Essentially what BCA would be doing would be building what they build now, with a shorter fuselage. 

Conclusion

Writing this article was no mean feat. I have tried to focus on the current product, yet still do no have the full information to make a worthwhile assessment. My position is based on the current state of the program, whose sketchy information leads me to conclude that its past a point of no return. This may in fact preclude anything written here, and in reality may mean that the last few frames will roll out in 2022. Any development potential from this point is null.

Having said this, the choice to end production may simply be a matter of commitment, however this this seems to be unlikely. 

As far as there being new developments, there needs to be a serious and substantial interest in anything the program can provide. Even if there was interest to buy new frames, the commitment to buy must be  negotiated and these things usually take time. If BCA offers new versions in the coming weeks and months, a buyer will still have to be found for those frames that it could potentially make. Sales has to be the focus of the program if indeed that is what is happening behind the scenes. 

I however, do not believe this is in any realm of possibility.

With program shut down now imminent, in reality, there is very little to talk about. There is no recourse to restarting production without any new commitments. BCA have already made an announcement of the closure Next Year, meaning that this has been formalized internally. With this in mind, there may not be any new developments for this program. In many ways production has already ended, the low rate may just be a means of spreading the burden over time, and may actually keep cost low.

Having taken two accounting losses in 2008-2009 and then in 2015-2016, it is unlikely that any approval for new adventures will ever be approved. Even a cheap and affordable rejigging, will cost money and in this day and age, those are precious commodities. BCA's closure of the 747 will be celebrated as the legendary achievement that it is, but for those involved and for those that tried to do everything to save the program, it is a slice of their careers.

Having said this of course, what little is left of this chapter is now closing out, bit by bit, until the doors are closed behind the last frame, for the last time.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

9 Redux

 Here we go again.

Another Lambasting of BCA from an ME3 CEO.

STC has become quite good at this. Yes, he is leveraging his company, yes he doesn't have to and yes the ball is not on His side of the court. BCA is many things, but what they are not, are waiters at a restaurant. In fact, kudos to their PR department for keeping its cool. BCA has dealt with many CEO's and certainly this wont be the last. I also don't think being a jerk to any waiter makes your food arrive faster. STC is right though, the claims and guarantees given are backed with thinning levels of credibility. Indeed, the situation as presented now with the 779 is not rosy at all. The airplane is designed as the successor to the Queen of the Skies. And that design, that eclipsed it, has fell flat on its face. So the question is, what can be inferred to any design that is in this market segment? Is the order book for the 779 an indication of a long term market shift away from large jets?

Odds are, that the trends will continue and if this is the case we could be seeing not only the demise of the 747, but the market it created as well.

Markets appear and disappear all the time. What remains is the finger print of the market that was there. Horse drawn carriages disappeared along with steamers, Trams, ATARI sets etc etc. This however only created the need or desire for that technological solution, that it offered, but today those needs manifest themselves in different ways. Carriages were replaced by Trains, Trams with Subways, ATARI sets with smartphones and steamers with jetliners, of which the Queen was instrumental in bringing about its demise. 

That such a technological shift is indeed possible whilst presenting a similar solution to the need of Mass Air travel is not in doubt. What is in doubt, is the continued presence of large jets to perform this social function. 

You see The Queen of the Skies didn't just create a continuity of technology when it was introduced. It created its own market and its own rules. That machine made many things that were impossible, possible, but did so on the basis that it could not be matched, at least during its early years. The capability it delivered to the market worked for the 747, because the 747 was its OWN market. It was a monopoly. 

Fast forward to today, and BCA is putting stock on the next generation of that market. I've said it before and I will say it again, I don't like the solution. It is a rehash of a rehash. Having said that of course, the monopoly I just mentioned didn't last forever, and what the 779 is today, is perhaps BCA's last foray into this market and if this is true, then it is expected that their heart really isn't in to it as much as it should. I don't blame them for putting out the 779 as the replacement for the 747. Its not like the 747 was doing so well, only that I wish they had paid more attention to it. 

Even those customers that bought it are perhaps dinosaurs of a dying age. Air travel has been fragmenting for more than 2 decades, only now is the effects of which more accelerated than ever before. The main drivers are technology, and the increased efficiency. This saves money and helps airlines, head off inflation, but lowered costs mean smaller entrants into the market, with smaller fleets and lower overheads, making large operations difficult to justify and with more competitors to boot.. 

It may be a matter of time before the legacy Airlines of yesteryear are brought down to their knees by the ever increasing no. of competitors chipping away at its base, little by little until there is no longer any advantage to having them around. It may become inevitable. In fact, the technology to do that may already exist. 

Fragmentation is and always has been its own dog, and no one believes that it has it own day, until, that is, they have seen theirs, with their own eyes. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Victory (At Last)

The Long Awaited Delivery for RC021 is around the corner. Here is some basic data.

LN 1435 RC021 MSN 37826 First Flight 04/26/2011 Customer: Egyptian Government. 

Final Reg: SU-EGY. VIP Configurtion.

For those 747 fans who have watching for years, this is the Last UFO on the List. There is the one in Basel but that was delivered to a customer and apparently doesn't count.

https://www.planespotters.net/airline/Egypt-Government

Beer Time.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Superlatives

 Well, well, well.

2021 is a disaster. We should be getting used to this by now.

I'm tired, not of writing, but tired of the doldrums. 

I hate the A330. 

There was a time when I actually liked it. that was many years ago.

It has turned from an angelic shape silhouetted in the filtered light, to an indescribable expletive over a centrefold. The sum of the inspiration I feel when I sit on one is best not described in these pages. Yet this is just an ordinary response to how much of a drab experience flying has become and then I turn around and realize that its actually a 777.

If pax can't tell what plane they are flying on, then there is a very good reason for that. They all have the same weakness. Look a lot a like, probably offering similar economics. Now that is a metric you can trust. Money. 

Where is the imagination. I suppose when dealing with optimization, we always have to start from the best starting point. The entrenchment of the air travel market leaves nothing to the imagination, because there is nothing to imagine. Airlines design lousy planes. So lousy that the last great experiment in arrogant over extravagance has just humiliatingly closed its doors, doing a damage to the market that it will never recover from. The reputation of the large quad has been destroyed for good and good riddance. 

Except its not true.

The numbers we see today reflecting efficiency are numbers that are for newer designs based on relatively recent ideas. The achievements of carbon fibre as applied to the twin is what is claimed as to be the ultimate 'game changer'. This is also a fat lie.

You see, the carbon fibre that were so touted about was never applied to the quads in the same way that it was applied to a twin. Lets now make a 787 out of aluminium shall we, and a 747 out of carbon fibre. Would the economics be reversed? Would the twin lag behind this time, but better yet would it equal the 787 made of the carbon fibre. And what about the Quad made of the same stuff. how much better (or worse) would it be as an airplane.

Could you take a 747's schematics and program an AI to replace as many aluminium parts as possible? What would the weight reduction be like? Would it open new doors? Has this question ever been explored? Curiously of course we know what the Answer is and its that we will never know. 

Realistically of course one can see benefits for both. We can only advance carbon fibre technology by being daring enough to try new things with it, and obviously any airplane would greatly benefit from reduced empty weights. By claiming the technology to be the exclusive property of twin jets is simply saying that we have no more ideas with respect to carbon fibre is just incredible. All this body of work and not one iota of it used creatively.

Well, who would have thought that it figures.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Perhaps.

 Which part of designing an airplane is the least difficult?

If you said the Aerodynamics, you would get a call from the structures people to discuss about the F word at various speeds and loadouts affecting particular portions of the design.

If you went and said propulsion, a weight and balance guy might say your engine is too heavy/too powerful and has a poor location relative to the location on the airframe (ahem).

Complaining about avionics bays and the space that it occupies might be the job of the landing gear people, who mutter about those large cable bundles that run through their section to another part of the aircraft.

The electrics guy keeps a length of cable spare for the hydraulics guy, and the monkey wrench in the toolbox looks like it has another non-productive use, that usually involves zip ties and blankets.

Seriously of course, relationships are the heart and soul of any program or project, Poor relations mean low morale, low productivity, lack of interest and motivation.

"Lets get the job done'' we tell ourselves, a job well done is its own reward. However, pressure is not the deadline, pressure is the stress within the individual. Work plays a very integral part in life, whether we like it or not, we dedicate our time and talent, to produce great things, but sometimes this can go awry.

Everyone is afraid of pink paper.

Life rewards people unfairly,  but that is a risk that many have no choice but to accept.

The difference is humility, knowing your limits and knowing your self. If you really can't do what the other guy did, you can always ask them to show you, unless its not part of your job, and even then knowledge never hurt anyone, unless it was misused.

The whole of organization, is based on the collective productivity of the whole. Criticism of its workings is an essential part of the process, allowing things to be organized better or to weed out any ill conceived practices and ideas. In short, someone has to be the bad guy.

A career in Engineering assumes much. We are told we are working for a common purpose. That purpose is to develop our product or complete our project. We assume that the work done to the best of our abilities is the best solution, whence alas it may not. We assume much of our co-workers and our boss, hoping that there is a common ground shared by all. Except that this hope is the bane of competitiveness, and sometimes produces poor work not fit for use.

One has to love the work, but in the sterile conditions of the engineering office, that leaves nothing to be inspired, most persons can only feel the build-up of stress. It takes a special person the be an engineer, and a very gifted person to be a good one. The best engineers have a patience to wait their turn and prefer being the underdog and thus to shirk responsibility, until that that responsibility is given to them exclusively. They are actually very good poker players.

Life as an engineer isn't so cut and dried. In the medical profession, your failings as a doctor are countered by the efforts made to save your patient, and sometimes this is a futile exercise. In engineering, it was always just reckoning, and seeing whose idea was best, relative to the costs. In the sciences, a hypothesis need not be correct provided that there were arguments that would show the holes in the theory, despite our efforts of course. In engineering, the theory has already been figured out. Your job is to use that theory to make good on it, to see if there is something that can be made from it.  The are many more comparisons, but I can't list them all here,

Perhaps the best any engineer can do, is to make the best of the situation as presented, and sometimes that means sticking up for your design and taking charge of your turf. Sometimes it means going against the consensus, because you know that there is a better solution out there. Sometimes it means that you have to surrender in the face of an enlightened experience whose know how is far greater than the groups collective.

Whatever the arguments, perhaps the the best thing any engineer can realistically do, is to continue to be, just an ordinary engineer.