Singapore Air Show

Korean Air is first in region to fly long-range 747-8s

 - January 27, 2010, 10:29 AM

Given Asia’s affinity for big airplanes and the fact that the region is emerging from the global recession as one of the few in the world that has experienced growth in airline traffic, it should come as little surprise that some of Boeing’s brightest prospects for the 747-8 reside there. In fact, according to Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth, more than half of the expected demand for very large aircraft–the segment covering 747-8s and Airbus A380s–will come from the Asia-Pacific region. So when Korean Air signed a firm order for five examples of the 747-8 Intercontinental last year, one might forgive Boeing for seeming less than stunned by a deal that gave it only its second customer for the passenger carrying-version of the new jumbo jet.

Nevertheless, Tinseth couldn’t deny the significance of the order, particularly at a time when any sale of any kind of airplane makes news. “I think it absolutely will help,” said Tinseth, when asked whether the order could whet the appetites of other operators in the region. “I think it will open some eyes about what this airplane is all about.

“Frankly, airlines had seen a lot of things that we had been thinking about on 747 replacements for a long, long time, and I think to some extent we lost a little bit of our credibility there. But I think we hit the right combination of performance, in terms of operating cost and in terms of passenger environment with the 747-8. This will really give them a chance to take a second look at what that airplane is all about and I think they’ll be very, very impressed.”

Korean Air proved sufficiently impressed to commit to taking delivery of its first 747-8I during the first quarter of 2013 and its second passenger-carrying -8 in the second quarter of that year. Also a customer for the 747-8 Freighter, scheduled to fly for the first time just as the start of the Singapore Airshow approached, Korean plans to take its first -8F during this year’s fourth quarter and six more at a rate of one per year into 2016. Although the airline had placed an order for just five -8Fs, it plans to take seven in all, the first two from a leasing company. Meanwhile, Korean told AIN it expects to take two more Intercontinentals in 2014 and the fifth in 2015.

Although the airline said it did not receive any offers from Boeing for a shorter 747-8I (Boeing originally planned to make the fuselage of the 747-8 passenger version some 80 inches shorter than the freighter), the 8,000-nm range now promised will serve its purposes sufficiently for its longest-haul operations to North America and Europe. Now flying 21 B747-400s in passenger service and another 22 B747-400Fs along with a single 747-400 Combi, Korean Air told AIN it hasn’t yet established a plan for retiring  any of its older 747s, and that its contract does not include provisions for any returns to Boeing.

Still, given Boeing’s expectations that virtually all the demand for the 747-8 outside the Middle East will come from airlines that want to replace aging -400s, it stands to reason KAL will use the -8s to replace some of its older airplanes. “In fact, that’s how we see this market in general, as a replacement market,” said Tinseth.

Of course, the big airplane segment includes the Airbus A380, which should figure in Korean Air’s replacement plans as well. As a customer for the A380, Korean Air proved again that the Intercontinental and the Airbus superjumbo carry distinct mission characteristics. Lufthansa, which is the 747-8I launch customer and also holds firm orders for 15 A380s, placed its 20-aircraft order for the latest 747 in December 2006–validating early on Boeing’s assertions that the two airplanes not only compete directly, but also could serve in complementary roles.

“Clearly, if you’re operating an airline and you have a network that supports a 550-seat airplane there are going to be a number of routes that will be optimized around the seating capacity of the 747-8,” noted Tinseth.

Fills 200-seat Capacity Gap
In fact, according to Tinseth, the Intercontinental just about perfectly fills a 200-seat capacity gap between the 777-300ER and A380. Although Korean Air said it has yet to decide on the precise seating configuration of its 747-8Is, it expects roughly a 10-percent increase in seat capacity over the average capacity of its -400s–which now accommodate 333 or 335 passengers in either of two first-class sleeper configurations and 384 passengers in its standard three-class layout.    

KAL and, indeed, Asian carriers that fly the 747-400 should find use for the extra seats the -8I offers if Boeing’s expectations for the region materialize. Expected to carry some 50 more seats than the 747-400 typically holds, the 747-8 can help airlines cope with the capacity constraints even Boeing concedes will continue to exist in some of Asia’s largest hubs, while avoiding what Tinseth characterized as the “risk” of an airplane as large as an A380.

Although Boeing believes most of the growth it projects for the region will involve single-aisle airplanes and twin-aisle varieties ranging in capacity from 200 to 400 seats, the need for large-aircraft replacements in the Asia-Pacific region-particularly in Southeast Asia, Japan, Oceania and Taiwan–will result in modest increase in the number of large aircraft.

“It has a lot to do with geography,” explained Tinseth. “It has a lot to do with the number of large cities you have in the market. You also have a number of countries like Singapore, like Korea, that have built very large hub structures around their economies, and that bodes well for large airplanes.”