Freighter tests lift 747-8 passenger jet

Boeing's year of flight tests on the 747-8 freighter may help the planemaker meet a goal of delivering the passenger version by year-end, removing the stigma of delays from its newest jumbo jet.

Boeing has targeted the end of March for the first flight of the aircraft, which it calls the Intercontinental, said Todd Zarfos, vice president for engineering for the 747-8. Work on the freighter during the past year is expected to make regulatory certification for the passenger version easier, he said.

"Those fixes have already been incorporated in the Intercontinental," Zarfos said after Boeing showed the new aircraft to customers, employees and investors Sunday in Everett, Wash. "The airplane itself is largely the same as a 747-8 freighter."

Meeting benchmarks such as first flight and delivery is important for Chicago-based Boeing, with the 787 Dreamliner delayed by three years, the 747 freighter about two years late and the passenger jet a year behind schedule, analysts said.

"I want that Boeing that used to never miss, under- promise, to show up, and start with the 747," said Howard Rubel, a New York-based analyst with Jefferies & Co. The string of delays has "cost them money, it's cost them share and it's cost them reputation. And they can regain it."

The fifth variant of the 747, the Intercontinental was rolled out from the same Everett, Wash., factory that made the first version of the plane more than 40 years earlier. The newest version stretches the iconic hump and carries about 467 passengers in a typical three-class configuration, fewer than the usual 525 in the larger Airbus A380.

The 747-8 will "put heat on the A380," Elizabeth Lund, deputy program manager, said Sunday. "With an A380, you run the risk of not filling every seat whenever you fly. It's, we think, really the right size most of the time in most markets."

The Intercontinental, with an average list price of $317.5 million, has 33 orders to date, with 20 of them from Deutsche Lufthansa and five from Korean Air Lines. Carriers typically receive discounts for large orders.

Lufthansa's Nico Buchholz, who expects his company to receive its first 747-8 in 2012, said he remembered a meeting with Boeing executives in 2002 to discuss a more efficient version of the Boeing 747-400. The resulting aircraft lowers seat-mile costs for carriers by 13 percent and boosts fuel efficiency by 16 percent, Boeing said.

"We had during that meeting the famous words, 'Guys, just do it," Buchholz, executive vice president for the airline's fleet management, said before the 747-8 was shown to the audience. "We are pleased because 'just do it' is behind the curtain."

The aircraft Buchholz saw Sunday was painted red, orange and white instead of Boeing's traditional blue, which was intended to convey vibrancy, said Pat Shanahan, general manager of commercial airplane programs.

"This certainly isn't Boeing blue, but this isn't Joe Sutter's Oldsmobile either," Shanahan said, referring to the leader of the engineering team on the first 747, about 40 years ago. "This is a new airplane, and we wanted a new livery."

The 747-8's wingspan stretches more than 224 feet, about 13 feet longer than the earlier model, the 747-400. The aircraft is propelled by GEnx-2B67 engines, built by General Electric Co., which are made with about 30 percent fewer parts, reducing maintenance. The cruising speed is about Mach 0.86, or about 86 percent of the speed of sound.

Boeing is optimistic about a pickup in sales, Lund said. Development of previous aircraft shows they sell well at launch, drop off while in production and flight testing, then improve once the plane proves itself in the market, Lund said.

The original 747 had its share of teething problems and yet went on to become one of the most successful programs in aerospace history, said Doug Runte, managing director at Piper Jaffray & Co. in New York. Runte said he's looking for a greater diversity of customers, higher orders and a successful production rampup.

"Early teething problems can both be forgiven and forgotten," Runte said.