Everyone is making a big deal out of the delivery of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, scheduled for September 25. Far fewer have noticed that one week earlier, the Boeing Company will deliver another new airplane — the freighter version of its recently debuted 747-8. Air cargo is one of those freight-mobility subjects that gets little notice in the mainstream press or other information sources. You see the planes occasionally flying over the city, on approach to Sea-Tac or Boeing Field: large windowless jets arriving from major cities around the world. But few people are aware of the role they play in Boeing's business, and in the regional economy. Air freight is an industry that defines Seattle as an international hub for people, products, and prestige.
In 2010 Memphis was the nation's top cargo airport, thanks to its FedEx base, and Anchorage was second, mostly because polar routes make it a perfect hub for cargo to change from one flight to another between Europe, Asia, and North America. But Sea-Tac, in 18th place, and Boeing Field, at 25th, still placed high. And they provide living-wage jobs to the workers who drive trucks, load planes, and fly them.
A passenger version of the new 747-8 still is undergoing flight testing, but the freighter is ready to fly, although it too had production problems and is several years behind schedule. The freighter's delivery was originally scheduled for the third quarter of 2009 and the passenger plane's for the fourth quarter of 2010. The 747-8F was finally certified in August by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency. On September 19 Boeing will deliver the first two planes to its launch customer, Luxembourg-based Cargolux, one of the largest air-cargo companies in the world.
“There have been a few discoveries we have encountered, but we have dealt with those discoveries and are moving forward,” says Bob Saling, a spokesperson for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “Examples of the discoveries include a low-frequency vibration within a limited portion of the flight envelope, and an underperforming actuator for the inboard aileron.”
"We hit a few bumps on the journey from order to delivery, but I am convinced that the entire Cargolux team shares my sense of excitement and pride as we demonstrate industry leadership once again,” Frank Reimen, Cargolux's president and CEO, said in a statement. “Clearly, the 747-8F will be the cornerstone of our growth and profitability for the next decades and a genuine industry game changer."
The 747-8 Freighter is 250 feet long, more than 18 feet longer than the predecessor 747-400 Freighter. This stretch gives customers 16 percent more revenue cargo volume, which means it can take off weighing nearly a million pounds. It lists for $319.3 million on Boeing's website. But Boeing customers, like car buyers, seldom pay list price.
“The 747-8 will be a successful airplane,” predicts Bob Dahl, managing director of Air Cargo Management Group, a lead air cargo consulting firm based here. “It will fit in nicely in the fleets of the top cargo carriers.” But the new freighter is entering service just as the air cargo market hits a downdraft. Air cargo, like most business, took a steep dive in 2009 following the financial crisis and steep U.S. recession. It bounced back, somewhat surprisingly, in 2010 and was doing fairly well this year — until the past few months. The International Air Transport Association said in its July report that world freight markets were “stagnating,” with continued declines in traffic.
For the long term, however, most in the industry see a good future for air cargo. Dahl says the current slowdown could change quickly, depending on the economy and the need to move cargo quickly to take advantage of changing market conditions. And he notes that some of the delays in delivery occurred during the sharp downturn in traffic in 2008 and 2009. “Some customers were relieved, but then some customers expecting deliveries made changes in their fleets and were left short of capacity when the market turned around so quickly in 2010.”
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