Below is an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the possible future developments of the 747-400.
PARIS -- It was the forgotten airplane at last week's Paris Air Show.
With all the buzz about The Boeing Co.'s "sonic cruiser," there was hardly any mention of the company's flagship 747-400.
Nada. Not even a briefing.
Boeing wanted it that way. This was the coming-out-party for the "sonic cruiser," and executives did not want to get off message.
A year ago, at the Farnborough Air Show outside London, all the talk was about the 747X vs. the Airbus A3XX superjumbo, now known as the A380.
But Boeing announced on March 29 that because of a lack of demand it had decided to shelve plans for 747X to focus on the development of a new airplane that will cruise just shy of the speed of sound and change air travel as we know it.
Boeing, however, hasn't forgotten what is still the world's biggest commercial jetliner.
Since that March announcement, executives have been holding quiet but intense talks with a number of airlines about the 747.
Instead of attending the world's biggest air show last week, Walt Orlowski, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 747 programs, has been wrapping up visits with about 20 airlines in Europe, Asia and the United States. He has personally held in-depth discussions on what they would like to see next for the 747, either the freighter or passenger airplane.
A decision on what modifications and improvements will be made to the jumbo could come soon, following a thorough review of the information gathered from those airline visits.
On the table is everything from a stretched version of the 747-400 freighter to a passenger version with more range, to more powerful but quieter engines to a speed kit that would allow what is already the fastest subsonic commercial jetliner to cruise up to Mach .88. That's not in the class of the sonic cruiser, but it's pretty swift.
"There continues to be very high interest in a 400-passenger airplane," Orlowski said in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"I didn't find anybody who doesn't believe there is still a big requirement for a 747-size airplane, something smaller than the A380. We found there is large interest in Europe, Asia and the United States, though less so in the U.S. because we just don't have as many 747 operators. But in Europe there is a lot of interest in future requirements for the 747."
Some industry pundits have all but written off the future of the 30-year-old 747, now that Airbus has committed to the development of its A380 superjumbo. If Airbus meets its current schedule, the 555-passenger jetliner will enter service in 2006.
The current 747-400 seats up to 420 passengers in three classes.
In its latest 20-year market outlook, Boeing is projecting a market for 510 airplanes in the 400-500 seat size. It also forecasts that about 500 planes with more than 500 seats will be needed. Airbus believes about three times as many planes with 500 or more seats will be needed over the next 20 years.
For now, the biggest Airbus plane is the new 380-seat A340-600 that will enter service next year. Although the A340-600 is being advertised by Airbus as a replacement for older 747s, Boeing is convinced there is a solid market for the 747 for years to come.
But the company can't just stand still and hope customers will come calling.
Orlowski cited one European airline he visited, which is looking to replace older 747-200s in its fleet because they are too noisy, he said. But the airline does not want the bigger A380.
"They told us they want a 400-passenger airplane, and either Boeing does something for them or they look at the A340-600. Those are the two choices," Orlowski said.
"We showed them what we could do."
Boeing is already working on a new longer-range version of the 747-400 that was ordered late last year by Qantas.
That plane will have a maximum take-off weight of 910,000 pounds compared to 875,000 pounds for the current version. The heavier plane will have about 530 nautical miles more range or be able to carry about 22,000 pounds more payload. It also will get a new 777-style interior.
But the Longer Range 747-400, which will enter service next October, is far less capable than the 747X would have been.
The 747X family had included a super long-range version with more than 9,000 nautical miles of range and a stretched version that could carry about 100 more passengers.
By March of this year, after nine months of marketing the 747X, Boeing had not landed a single order.
Although Boeing has told airlines it will still build the 747X if that's what they want, development might not begin until after the sonic cruiser is ready. And it will not enter service before 2008.
"The delay in the 747X program prompted us to go back to all our 747 customers and to let them know we are thinking about the future of the 747," Orlowski said. "There are a lot of things we can do to this airplane, both short term and long term."
One of the most intriguing -- and probably the least likely to see fruition -- is a speed kit to boost the 747-400's speed from Mach .85 to Mach .88.
More powerful engines would not be needed. Instead, the speed increase would be achieved by taking advance of an aerodynamic principle known as the "area rule." This would involve the use of fairings at various places on the 747 fuselage.
Boeing first talked with airlines about 10 years ago to see if they wanted the increase in speed, Orlowski said. They didn't. The faster speed means a slightly higher fuel burn.
"We are talking to them again to see if anything has changed," he said.
Another option is the development of a new 65,000-pound thrust engine for the 747. This engine would be more powerful than the current power plants on the 747-400 but not as large as what was planned for the 747X.
The new engine would produce less take-off noise. That's becoming increasingly important for some airlines. London's Heathrow Airport, for example, has adopted tough noise standards. Aircraft that don't meet the new standard can't take off between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Another possibility is wing improvement called a "trailing edge wedge," which was developed by McDonnell Douglas to improve the efficiency of the MD-11. Tests found it would significantly help the 747.
Raked wing tips designed for the new 767-400 could also be used on the 747-400 to improve efficiency. The 747-400 now has small winglets.
Lighter-weight wing flaps are also being discussed, along with raising the 747's stall speed. This would result in less noise during landing, since the jet could fly at slower speeds without losing lift.
Boeing is also discussing a possible stretch of the 747's fuselage. This option is more likely for a new freighter than for a passenger model.
Airlines have also been briefed about various new interior options, including overhead space that was to have been a feature on the 747X passenger plane. This space could be used for as many as 20 sleeping berths for first- and business-class passengers as well as a crew-rest area.
The maximum take-off weight of the plane could be increased to as much as 960,000 pounds, which would mean more range or payload than the Longer Range 747-400 now in development.
"It's a large group of improvements to the airplane that we are discussing," Orlowski said.
But Boeing has not yet made any decision on what to do next, he stressed, even though some published reports have suggested otherwise.
"We are still trying to understand what our strategy should be," he said.
Boeing will now review what the airlines have been saying in the meetings. And they have been saying a lot.
Most of the meetings have lasted up to three hours, Orlowski said. In some cases there have been two three-hour sessions with airlines.
Whatever Boeing decides to do next with the 747, Orlowski believes it will have a different answer for the freighter and passenger planes.
The passenger plane could have more range, with the freighter getting more volume, Orlowski said, though that has not been decided.
"Whatever we do will be a compromise," he said. "You can't satisfy everyone."