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At long last, Boeing delivers the first next-gen 747

More than six years in the making, the new 747-8 Intercontinental will soon be flying passengers. Today, Boeing handed over the first of the planes to Lufthansa.

The cockpit of Lufthansas first 747-8 Intercontinental, which was delivered to the airline today by Boeing.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

EVERETT, Wash.--Get ready, aviation fans. Seats aboard Boeing's new 747-8 Intercontinental are almost ready for you. And today, at an event here, Boeing finally handed over the keys to the first of the next-general planes to a commercial airline customer.

The new airplane, which Boeing first unveiled at a huge ceremony here a year ago, has been in testing since then. But today, Lufthansa became the first airline to officially own one of the aircraft, the first of 20 it has ordered, and of 130 total orders Boeing has received for it.

Sporting Lufthansa's mostly white and dark blue paint job, the new 747 took off at 2:38 p.m. PT on its way to Frankfurt, Germany. There, the airline will do final preparations on the plane in advance for its June 1 debut. Lufthansa said it plans to fly the plane to three U.S. cities -- Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago -- as well as two destinations in India.

And if you happen to be aboard the new 747, there's a good chance you'll be sitting in business class, because fully 92 of the plane's 358 seats are business class, with an additional eight configured for first class, and the remaining 258 economy class.

During a press conference prior to takeoff, Lufthansa and Boeing executives explained that the airline has decided that eight is the appropriate number of first-class seats to feature on its long-haul flights. As well, as many as 30 percent of its long-haul planes won't have first class at all. Instead, the airline is focusing much more on business class.

Lufthansa also plans to slowly replace the existing 747-400s in its fleet with the next-generation 747s, explained Nico Buchholz, Lufthansa's executive vice president of group fleet management, adding five each year through 2015. As well, he said Lufthansa considers the plane to have a 400-passenger capacity, which fills a vital gap between the 200 or 300 seats available on many of its planes, and the 500-seat capacity of its Airbus A380s. Boeing, however, advertises the new 747 as having a 476-seat capacity, although the aviation giant figures on a smaller number of business class seats than an airline like Lufthansa has decided to include.

Next big step
For the last few years, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner has been the plane that has gotten the most ink. All Nippon Airways last year became the first carrier to fly passengers aboard the Dreamliner. But with the formal handover today, Boeing has made it clear that the 787 isn't its only ace in the global commercial aviation poker game.

Boeing has touted the new 747 for years as the most fuel-efficient and cheapest airliner to operate in the world, and with a sleek upgraded look, the new plane should easily join its predecessors in the 747 line as an iconic representation of what air travel can and should be.

New wings
Part of what makes the 747-8 Intercontinental such a fuel-efficient airplane is the integration of its all-new wing design. Built with what Boeing calls "the latest in computational fluid dynamics validated in the world's most sophisticated wind tunnels," the wings provide improved aerodynamics, and greater fuel capacity and help the giant jet soar through the sky at speeds 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."

The next-gen plane's wing design also 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, this new system modifies the lift distribution over the wing during non-normal flight conditions, reducing the load on its outboard portion, Boeing says. That means that the new wing structure is 1,400 pounds lighter than that of current-generation 747-400s, but does not compromise structural integrity.

Another element of the plane that Boeing eagerly touts is its four General Electric GEnx 2B engines which together consume 16 percent less fuel per seat than do the 747-400's engines, and 11 percent less than those of the A380. Boeing also promotes the plane's reduced noise footprint, which, according to the company, is 30 percent smaller than that of the 747-400. Boeing says the new plane can fly in or out of London's Heathrow airport 24 hours a day, while most other aircraft are subject to an evening curfew due to noise.

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.

Finally, the new plane has a series of interior design features brought over from Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and 777 planes. Those elements include "curved, flowing lines; sophisticated lighting; new windows; and roomier stowage bins [creates] a spacious, open feeling throughout the cabin."

Signing ceremony
Before Lufthansa could fly its new plane home, there was the small matter of a final signing ceremony -- and the handing over of the keys.

So in front of a large audience of press, Boeing and Lufthansa employees and executives, and others, Pat Shanahan, senior vice president and general manager of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, did just that, giving them to Carsten Spohr CEO of Lufthansa Passenger Airlines.

Spohr is a former pilot who worked his way up the ranks at Lufthansa, and he seemed amused by the symbolism of the moment, since he'd never flown Boeing's planes. "Being an Airbus pilot for 15 years," Spohr said, "this is the first time I'm holding a Boeing key."