December 03, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Boeing Concept
Michael Mecham San Francisco and Guy Norris Los Angeles
The international airfreight sector has struggled since 2008, but Boeing thought market demand would rise this year as it prepared for a production rate bump in the 747-8, the world's best-selling large freighter. Unfortunately, recovery in Asia, Europe and North America is now unlikely until 2014.
Boeing's market forecasters still expect freighter demand to more than double over the next 20 years, rising an average of 5.2% per year. That should push orders to 3,200 from the current level of 1,750, giving a big boost to the 747, which hold a 55% market share.
But high fuel prices, political and economic turmoil—such as the Arab Spring and European debt crisis—and sluggish growth in China and Asia are hurting markets now, says Boeing's cargo analyst, Tom Crabtree. Though the 747-8 Freighter offers a 17% fuel advantage over the 747-400, cargo companies have been parking freighters for lack of work. The cool freight market has raised alarms on the 747-8 assembly line.
“We're in a bit of a quandary on how to smooth out our production system,” says Boeing Senior Vice President Pat Shanahan.
Despite the weak freight market, Boeing moved to a two-per-month build rate in July. As of Nov. 28, it had delivered 27 747-8s this year, including six VIP versions and the first four of 20 Intercontinental passenger models for Lufthansa. Of its 79 aircraft in backlog, 46 are freighters. It has manufactured 50 747-8s but delivered only 36.
While freight remains a “watch and see” item for Boeing, it is counting on passenger aircraft campaigns in 2013 to help smooth out the 747-8 order mix, Shanahan told an RBC Capital Markets teleconference last week. But given their longer lead times, even a burst of passenger aircraft orders cannot plump up the 747 build rate until 2015 or 2016. “We're going to have to hold our breath through this period  with a mixture of passenger sales and moving ahead some of the [other] deliveries to smooth out the production line,” he said.
Still, Boeing expects to meet its goal of delivering 70-85 747-8s and 787s in roughly equal numbers this year.