Air China takes delivery of a Boeing 747-8. But is an era ending?

In the market for a great deal on a jetliner?

Boeing almost certainly has some brand new 747-8s it can sell you. Boeing delivered one on Monday to Air China, but don't let the fanfare fool you. Few airlines want to buy these aircraft, at least at anything near the prices Boeing would like. 

 Air China took delivery of its first Boeing 747-8 this week. Photo: Boeing 

Air China took delivery of its first Boeing 747-8 this week. Photo: Boeing 

We could have a long discussion about the economics of airplanes, but there are really only two main issues. First, the aircraft has four engines. Almost by definition, that makes it more expensive to operate than duel engine aircraft like the 777 and A330. The 747-8 is also a little on the large side, with 400 or so seats, a number that fluctuates based on the operator. Fill those seats, and an airline can make money. Otherwise, the economics are not strong.

The Airbus A380 actually has a similar problem, and Airbus hasn't sold as many of the model as it would like. But Emirates Airline has decided to make the A380 the backbone of its fleet. The 747-8, on the other hand, has no similar benefactor. 

This is a shame. First there's nostalgia factor. Boeing could eventually terminate the 747 program, marking the end of the era for the world's first jumbo jet. There's also the issue of passenger comfort. This newish version of the 747 is remarkably quiet, and it borrows some design elements - like "curved, upswept architecture" -- from the 787. It also has a lot of space, which can be helpful for long flights. Passengers like the aircraft a lot. 

The good news for 747 enthusiasts is that Boeing doesn't seem to want to give up, making several small improvements recently to make the aircraft more efficient. More importantly, Boeing is likely offering the aircraft at a steep discount. No one knows for sure, but I can't imagine Air China would have taken seven of them without a great price. The same goes for Korean Air, which last year said it would buy five 747-8s. 

Many analysts expect Boeing will hang on at least long enough to sell airplanes to the world's most famous 747 operator -- the U.S. government. Air Force One is due for an update soon and the 747-8 is the logical choice.