Frankfurt // Lufthansa became the first airline to take delivery of Boeing's latest generation of the 747 jumbo jet - the fifth incarnation since the iconic series of giant passenger airliners first took to the air in 1970s.
The arrival of the 747-8 Intercontinental with the call sign Yankee Bravo at the German airline's base in Frankfurt was greeted by a crowd of more than 1,000 Lufthansa employees and invited guests after its 10-hour flight from Boeing's Everett plant near Seattle in the United States .
An electronic fanfare rang out as the giant aircraft was accompanied into its new hangar by a marching band. The flight crew and guest dignitaries aboard applauded as they descended the gangway.
All the speeches by top Lufthansa bosses, and even by Elizabeth Lund, the vice president and 747 general manager at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, talked of "new eras", and the 747-8 becoming the backbone of Lufthansa's future long-haul strategy. But the talk around the buffet tables was of it being the last of its kind. Few thought there would be a sixth-generation of the 747.
"Where do they go from here?" said one aviation industry figure. "If they stretch the top deck any more, they'll have an A380. We're looking at the last."
Also, the 747-8's debut was overshadowed by Lufthansa grumbling over the aircraft's weight.
The 747-8, at an all-up, take-off weight of 422 tonnes, is several tonnes heavier than its original target weight. Boeing said modifications would mean the aircraft would be delivered within the original specifications by 2014. Any additional weight can dramatically affect an aircraft's fuel efficiency.
"Yes, it is a bit overweight, there's no secret about that", said Nico Buchholz, the executive vice president of group fleet management at Lufthansa. "But is that impacting any of our operations? No."
The Boeing 747-8 is, at 76.3 metres, the longest airliner ever built, and 5.6 metres longer than its predecessor, the Boeing 747-400. The new Lufthansa Jumbo can seat 362 passengers: eight in first class, 92 in business class and 262 in economy class.
Lufthansa will take delivery of 20 Boeing 747-8s up until 2015. The first five aircraft are due to be delivered to Lufthansa this year. They will initially operate on routes from Frankfurt to Washington, New Delhi, Bangalore, Chicago and Los Angeles.
"This is not just a stretched version of an old aircraft", said Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa passenger airlines.
"It might look similar, but inside, the Boeing 747-8 is 70 per cent new aircraft." He said the Boeing 747 series has been Lufthansa's long-haul workhorse for the past 40 years. This latest type comes with significantly improved aerodynamics and newly developed wingtips and also provides tangible improvements in terms of eco-efficiency.
The GEnx-2B engines use less fuel and achieve a substantial 15 per cent reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions per passenger. In addition, noise emissions have been reduced by 30 per cent, Mr Spohr said.
However, Boeing has not generated the same interest in its new long-haul model as Airbus did with the launch of the Airbus A380 Super Jumbo. Since putting the 747-8 on the market at a list price of US$317.5 million (Dh1.66 billion) six years ago, as of yesterday, it had only 36 orders for the passenger version, 20 of those from Lufthansa. However, the freighter version of the 747-8 has fared better, with 70 orders so far.
Speculation that the days of the 747 design are numbered seems to be moot. However, it should be remembered that it was expected by Boeing to become obsolete after 400 were sold, to be replaced by supersonic airliners.
But the 747 trumped its doubters, with production passing the 1,000 mark in 1993. And by the beginning of this year, almost 1,430 jumbos had been built - and the production line is still running.
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