Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental is here

The aerospace heavyweight formally unveils the next generation of its iconic jumbo jet. Despite modest sales, Boeing is confident the plane will carry on the 747's famous legacy.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
The all-new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, which the aviation giant formally unveiled today in Everett, Washington. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

EVERETT, Wash.--Sporting an all-new corporate color scheme--red and orange and white instead of the company's traditional blue and white--Boeing unveiled its next-generation 747-8 Intercontinental here today.

With the formal unveiling, the aviation giant made it clear that its 787 Dreamliner is hardly its only card in the global commercial aviation poker game.

Billed as the most fuel-efficient and cheapest airliner to operate in the world, the new plane seems poised to join its predecessors in the 747 line as an iconic representation of what air travel can and should be.

And while preorders of the 747-8 Intercontinental are nowhere near what Boeing saw with the 787, the aerospace giant also appears ready to move to the final stages leading to customer delivery without the numerous, and much publicized, delays of its Dreamliner cousin.

Boeing's next-gen 747-8 Intercontinental unveiled (photos)

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At a media event yesterday, Boeing vice president and deputy 747 program manager Elizabeth Lund said that the 747-8 Intercontinental is currently slated for an early spring first flight, and a fourth-quarter first passenger delivery. Asked if she felt confident about that schedule, Lund pointed out that while you can never predict unforeseen problems, "we started to build on schedule, and we're rolling out on schedule...so we're performing to plan at this point."

To date, the 747-8 program has received 107 announced preorders. But of that number, just 33 are for the Intercontinental passenger version, and from just two carriers--Lufthansa and Korean Air--and several private customers. The remaining 74 preorders are all for the 747-8 freighter, which is about a year ahead of the passenger plane. The freighter made its first flight almost exactly a year ago.

Lund acknowledged that Boeing would "love" to have more orders for the Intercontinental at this point, but argued that the plane has come to maturity during a very "tough" environment, and said that the aviation giant is "very confident" that the plane will sell well this year.

The low preorder figure for the Intercontinental indicates that the market for big, long-haul planes that fly between major transport hubs may not be as sizable as it once was. The Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the world, which can carry 525 passengers in a three-class configuration, has also sold in smaller numbers than hoped. Airbus has sold 234 of the planes. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner was said to have had the most preorders in aviation history, though some carriers later pulled back, perhaps because of the difficult economy, and some would say because of the plane's many delays. To date, Boeing says that it has 847 preorders for the Dreamliner.

Where Boeing's next-gen 747-8 comes to life (photos)

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Whether Boeing will ever sell anywhere near as many units as the Dreamliner is unlikely. But with its two-day media extravaganza surrounding the unveiling of the Intercontinental this weekend, Boeing is signaling that it believes in its next-generation 747, and that it is committed long-term to the platform.

New wings
One major highlight of the Intercontinental is the plane's new wing design. Created using "the latest in computational fluid dynamics validated in the world's most sophisticated wind tunnels," the wings offer improved aerodynamics, and larger fuel capacity while also allowing the plane to be as fast as, or faster than, any other passenger aircraft on Earth.

"Several elements of the wing design improve performance and reduce noise compared with the 747-400," a marketing document for the Intercontinental reads. "When the flaps are extended, the ailerons automatically deflect and act as additional high-lift devices, improving takeoff and landing performance and minimizing noise." As well, Boeing has replaced the 747-400's vertical winglets with "raked wingtips that increase lift and reduce drag at cruising speeds."

At the same time, the new wing design features "fly-by-wire spoilers and ailerons that make it possible to incorporate a flight control feature known as a maneuver load-alleviation system. Pioneered on the 787 Dreamliner, it changes the lift distribution over the wing during non-normal flight conditions, reducing the load on its outboard portion." By using the new system, Boeing said, it was able to make the wing structure smaller, saving 1,400 pounds of weight, while not compromising structural integrity.

Clearly, Boeing thinks that airline customers will benefit from the Intercontinental. It eagerly touts the plane's economic and green credentials: It is the only passenger plane in the 400- to 500-seat market, its four General Electric GEnx 2B engines consume 16 percent less fuel per seat than do the engines on the current-gen 747-400, and 11 percent less than the A380. As well, Boeing lauds the Intercontinental's reduced noise: According to the company, the "noise footprint" of the new plane is 30 percent smaller than that of the 747-400. As an example, Boeing said that the new plane will be able to fly in and out of London's Heathrow airport 24 hours a day, while most other aircraft are subject to an evening curfew due to noise.

Step into Boeing's next-gen 747-8 Intercontinental (photos)

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All of this is due to the use of advanced materials in the construction and design of the plane, as well as its use of the GEnx engines, and the form factor and materials of its wings. Most of the plane is made from new aluminum alloys, while it also incorporates graphite composites in the rudder, spoilers, flaps, and other areas. According to Boeing, "the materials are more durable and better able to resist corrosion and damage, which reduces maintenance and increases the time an airplane is available and productive."

In addition, the advanced materials are lighter, meaning the new 747 weighs less, and therefore uses less fuel, and costs less to navigate and land. All told, by using the new alloys and composite materials, the 747-8 weighs a ton less than its predecessor.

At the same time, the plane features interior designs brought over from Boeing's 777 and 787 Dreamliner that are intended to give passengers a better experience, the company said. Using "curved, flowing lines; sophisticated lighting; new windows; and roomier stowage bins [creates] a spacious, open feeling throughout the cabin."

Specs and advantages
As designed, the 747-8 Intercontinental will carry 467 passengers in a three-class configuration, and has a range of 8,000 nautical miles. The 747-8 freighter can fly up to 4,390 nautical miles. The Intercontinental has a wing span of 224 feet, 7 inches, and is 250 feet, 2 inches long. Its tail towers to 63 feet, 6 inches high. And its four GEnx-2B67 engines produce 66,500 pounds of thrust. The passenger plane's top cruising speed is Mach 0.86, while the freighter can fly at Mach 0.845.

Boeing's 747-8 Freighter, which made its first flight a year ago. Boeing said that the 747-8 Intercontinental should make its first flight sometime in early spring this year. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

While the Intercontinental was designed to be the same height as the 747-400 and fit into existing 747 slots at airports--meaning that no airport should have to do any reconfiguring to welcome the new plane--its 18.3 feet of added length will allow carriers to add 51 seats, and the revenue that comes with those additional passengers. As well, Boeing designed the new plane so that the flight crew's rest area is located in the upper deck, freeing up space on the main deck and lower hold for passengers and cargo. That means that the Intercontinental can carry 37,000 pounds of cargo--33 percent more than the 747-400, and 8,600 pounds more than the A380.

Compared to the A380, the Intercontinental is 10 percent lighter per seat. And all told, Boeing said its new plane has the lowest operating costs per seat of any passenger plane in the world. Due to the costs of fuel, maintenance, and weight-related costs, Boeing says that the plane offers carriers "trip costs" that are 20 percent less than that of the A380, while seat mile costs are 5 percent lower than Airbus' double-decker behemoth.

Befitting a brand-new, next-generation airplane, the Intercontinental is essentially a flying computer, Boeing said. That's due to a flight deck brimming with high-tech avionics and navigation systems. These systems include a state-of-the-art flight management computer, a future air navigation system (FANS)-2 data link, a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) landing system, and integrated approach navigation.

According to Boeing Commercial Airplanes Communications' Jim Proulx, the new plane also features an airport moving map system integrated into its front display screen, allowing both pilots to see, without moving their heads, their plane's precise location on the tarmac. This means that in low visibility situations, pilots of a 747-8 Intercontinental can easily see where they are at any given time when on the ground. "It's an extra tool to let you know where you are on the runway surface," Proulx said.

One advantage that Boeing has with the Intercontinental is that, because the 747-8 freighter has been flying for a year already, the testing program for the passenger plane will be significantly scaled down from what it would be if it was an entirely new plane. That could mean, Boeing would seem to hope, that some of the kinds of delays that have plagued the 787 Dreamliner could be avoided.

At the same time, because the Intercontinental is so similar to the 747-400, Boeing expects that pilots flying the current-gen 747 will be able to very quickly get up to speed on the new plane. Boeing said in a brochure that it should take just three days of training for 747-400 pilots to qualify for the Intercontinental.

New colors
One thing that likely surprised most of the people on hand was that the plane was decked out in the entirely new orange, red, and white color scheme. For years, Boeing has painted its test planes blue and white. But Pat Shanahan, Boeing vice president and general manager for Airplane Programs, said that around the world, red and orange are often seen as having a powerful meaning and have long been associated with "prosperity, good fortune, and the promise of success."

Now, as the 747-8 Intercontinental moves into its testing phase, Boeing can only hope that the world agrees with the sentiment expressed in a text message posted to the giant video board that attendees could watch the festivities on: "There are airplanes that are 747s, and there are airplanes that wish they were 747s."