Boeing: one engine will cut costs on new 747-8

Paris Air Show » 2007
June 17, 2007, 12:27 AM

A 16-percent operating cost improvement sounds like a formidable hurdle for any aircraft program, but even more so for one at its outset seen as a low-risk grab at a piece of a target market Boeing itself had dismissed as modest at best. But the 747-8 benefits from one thing that most other programs in the past haven’t–a new engine on which a much more expensive proposition rests in the 787 Dreamliner.

Although derived from the GEnx core designed for the 787, the engine for the 747-8 uses a smaller fan diameter and a system of bleed air, as opposed to the all-electric architecture of the 787’s powerplant. According to the 747-8 chief engineer Corky Townsend, the effort to tailor the GEnx to the 747 essentially made Boeing’s choice to offer only one engine type for the program.

“Two engines have to spread development costs over two halves of market,” said Townsend. “With a limited market size, it’s better to have one engine for residual values and total program cost.”

How much the limited choice for customers will affect Boeing’s ability to market the airplane as a passenger product remains in question, as so far only Lufthansa has signed on for the passenger version, dubbed the Intercontinental. Townsend insists that any perceived delay in market reaction, however, has little or nothing to do with the decision to limit the program to one engine.

“We haven’t gotten any pushback,” she said. “All things being equal they would desire to have choice. But given the market segment they’ve all come to the same rationale that we have and have accepted that this is the best choice for this market.”

In fact, recent meetings with prospective customers have centered on, in Townsend’s words, “trying to gain a perspective on the broader market base.” In other words, Boeing tries to foster an appreciation of more standardization, for everyone’s sake. 

“All of them in the past few years have had to try to obtain airplanes and found it very challenging, because they’re so customized,” a situation that leads to an erosion of residual values as well, said Townsend. ”So I think they’ve come to terms with the fact that they need to brand the product in a way that it’s not completely customized so that they could sell the product to somebody else and not [have to] gut the airplane and start over.”

Townsend said the meeting yielded some “interesting” revelations about one interior feature Boeing had hoped would draw some of the most positive feedback–the Door 2 entryway, where a galley in most airlines’ interiors tends to crowd the entrance to the stairway. “We’ve tried to open it up a bit, so we got some feedback from the airlines where maybe we went a little too far,” said Townsend. “So they really value and recognize we need to open it up, but maybe we need to also keep in mind some of the functionality. We had taken away some closets and so forth, and so, how do you balance that desire to create openness and welcoming for the passenger with functionality?…We’re still in that state of trying to figure out different alternatives.” Boeing plans to meet again with the airline group to decide on the final configuration in either late summer or early fall, she added.

Structurally, the most significant change to the 747-8 since the start of the program has involved the length of the Intercontinental, which engineers have stretched to match that of the freighter. Originally, Boeing expected airlines would want the extra range that would result from a shorter, and therefore lighter, fuselage. However, now it appears the economic benefits of more capacity trumps the extra range, as long as it doesn’t fall below 8,000 nautical miles.   

“We had a number of customers that wanted to go a little bit farther than 8,000 nautical miles and carry a little bit more cargo along with a full passenger load,” explained Townsend. “But as fuel prices went up, economics became more important… So we kind of just traded those two things; they were always competing against each other.”

Now the freighter and the passenger airplane will be the same length, resulting again in more uniformity of product offering. “That also provided some other benefits associated with people worrying about looking at the airplane, and [asking] if the freighter is a slightly different length, does that cause problems with people and their perceptions in terms of servicing the airplane and so forth,” said Townsend.

Even perceptions can affect residual values, as the financial community has known for a long time, and as Boeing evidently appreciates more than ever.

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