Whether it’s the rising tempo of 747-8 flight tests in the U.S. or the fact some people in U.K. aviation circles have more time on their hands right now in the build-up to the Royal wedding, the rumor mill is churning. This time it is once again over renewed interest by British Airways in Boeing’s newest aircraft. Passed over for the A380 in September 2007 when BA ordered 12 plus seven options (as well as 24 787-8/9s plus 18 options), the event seemed to mark a symbolic end to a 40 year relationship with the Jumbo. This was apparently re-confirmed in August 2008 when BA ordered six 777-300ERs and optioned four more to cover 787 delays.
Old favorites - is BA's long association with the 747 really winding down? (Guy Norris)
Yet six years ago, the former BA CEO Rod Eddington told Air Transport World in late September that his favored solution for the replacement of the airline’s 50 plus 747-400s was a mix of 777-300ERs and 747-8s. At the time Boeing was pitching the perceived advantages of lower fuel burn per seat, an argument that has not radically changed since 2005. At the time Boeing claimed the 747-8 would burn 13% less fuel per seat than a 416-seat 747-400 and 12% less than a 542-seat A380, the latter figure later raised to 13% less than the A380. Based mainly on the heavier weight of the A380 (about 40kg per seat in terms of operating empty weight), Boeing also said cost per seat would be -6%, and cost per trip -22% less than the A380.
Airbus, naturally argued the converse and in 2006 forecast a 9% delta between the two aircraft, in favor of the A380 on cost per seat, and a 2% advantage in terms of fuel burn per seat. By 2010, it had operational experience in hand and confidently grew its predicted advantage in relative fuel burn per seat over the 747-8 to 8% (based on A380 at 525 seats and 747-8 at 405 over 6,000nm). Over the same time period Boeing slightly trimmed its claimed fuel per seat advantage to around 10% (based on A380 at 555 seats and 747-8 at 467 over the same 6,000nm sector). The claimed advantage for the 747-8 in relative fuel per trip however remained substantial at more than 30%.
Emirates Airlines, which operates the A380 and has ordered the 747-8F, meanwhile is on record predicting the Airbus will have 12% lower operating costs than the Boeing aircraft, while Lufthansa (which, along with Korean Air) is so far the only operator to select both the A380 and 747-8 passenger models, predicts the 747-8 will burn 3.5 litres of fuel/100 passenger kms compared to 3.4 litres for the A380.
Certainly the jury remains out until the 747-8 completes nautical air miles tests and certification, and actually enters service with Lufthansa early in 2012. However, Boeing and engine maker GE know they have a hill to climb, particularly since flight tests on the freighter version showed the GEnx-2B engines common to both models are missing specification by a few percent. Improvements are in the pipeline, and only time will tell how the 747-8 and A380 will truly compare.
Flight tests will be key to proving the true relative fuel burn performance of the 747-8. (Joe Walker)
Back to the BA rumor which says that, as a by-product of the on-going planning for the consolidation of the 2010 merger with Iberia, the initial BA A380s will be diverted for use on Spanish trunk routes – with only limited use on mainline BA routes. The interest in the 747-8, so says the rumor, is based more on rebalancing capacity needs for BA’s long haul routes and a focus on frequency rather than volume. To this end, the airline and its oneworld alliance partner American, are also planning a “clockface” service this summer between London and New York that will see the two carriers provide flights between the two hubs on an hourly basis every day between 9am and 7pm. Yet, while frequency and sector demand may mitigate against size, the constant pressure on slots at London Heathrow continues to push capacity requirements the other way, as my colleague Rupa Haria recently notes.