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.
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.