Boeing 747-8 v Airbus A380: Is the era of the jumbo jet over?

With Qantas replacing its Boeing 747s with Airbus A380s on the world's longest flight route, does this mark another nail in the coffin of the iconic jumbo jet? 

Boeing is powering up the sales campaign on its newest plane, the 747-8, after overcoming technical obstacles it could ill-afford in its battle for survival against the Airbus A380 in the very large aircraft market.

Both aircraft are struggling to get wins on the board, with the A380 believed to require 100-150 more sales before it breaks even on its $US20 billion development cost.

The cost of developing the 747-8 was only a fraction of that – around $US4 billion – but, like the A380, it has faced technical issues and delays that have piled on further costs.

And, at the consumer end, it has suffered from the perception that it's old technology, while the 1990s invention of the A380 is all-new.

Seeing a 747-8I in the air is like watching Cinderella, while watching the A380 is like watching her ugly stepsister.

In fact, if you thought the 787 Dreamliner was the latest airliner from Boeing, you'd be forgiven. The company pitched the Dreamliner directly to airline customers in a radical marketing strategy as a piece of brand-new techno-wizardry, that created strong passenger expectations of the plane.

An unforeseen consequence is that the 747 is now seen as passé, even though the "dash eight" did not make its first flight until 2011 – nearly two years after the 787.

If only Boeing had unleashed its latest 747 salesman on the consumer market to spruik its latest creation.

Bruce Dickinson has only just taken over as vice-president for the 747 program and like many other Boeing project leaders he's an engineer with a personal stake in the technology in the 747-8: he was project chief engineer from 2011.


"I'm quite passionate about it," Dickinson says. "We're actually quite outspoken, as you can imagine, about the more advanced technology clearly [we have] than the A380. [There's] another generation of aerodynamics, another generation of engines, performance improvements where it matters and we retained everything that the customers loved about the fuselage itself. 

"How we marketed it may have been a little different as far as appealing to passengers direct and whatnot and I wasn't completely involved in all that. 

"We've got a lot of technology advantage, frankly, over the 380. We changed what matters and we kept the best of the config in a highly reliable and well-loved product."

Nevertheless, the 747 is becoming a rarer sight in Australian skies since the major carriers in the region started retiring their jumbo fleets.

Only Thai Airways is left among foreign carriers flying 747s to Australia year-round. Korean Airlines now flies 747s from Seoul to Sydney during the year's peak periods, preferring the A330 during the quieter months.

The past two months have seen both Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand get rid of their last 747s, while United Airlines took its 747s off the Los Angeles and San Francisco routes in April, with non-stop  Melbourne-Los Angeles 787 services beginning in October.

Qantas has pared back its 747 fleet from a peak of 36 between 2003 and 2007, to just nine in 2015 flying on a handful of routes: Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and Sydney to Santiago (Chile), Tokyo, Hong Kong and Johannesburg.

In fact, when it introduced the A380 on the Sydney-Dallas route this week in place of the Boeing 747-400ER, Qantas was prepared to forego one of its weekly services on the route so it wouldn't flood the market with too many new seats to fill on the larger Airbus.

Even though daily frequency is prized by business travellers, Sydney-Dallas and return won't operate on Tuesdays, except during the Christmas-New Year holidays.

The number of seats on the route will still jump by 14 per cent from 2548 per week to 2904 as the A380 seats 484 compared with the four-class configuration of the 747's 364.

The payoff for Sydney travellers is that the Brisbane stop coming home is no longer required, slashing more than two hours off the trip. 

Against prevailing westerly headwinds, the 747-400ER – one of a batch of six ultra-long-range versions of the plane built for especially Qantas – couldn't fly non-stop from Dallas to Sydney when the route was inaugurated in May 2011.

A stopover in had to be scheduled in Brisbane, which is 441 kilometres closer to Dallas than Sydney and right on the 747-400ER's range limit.

Even so, as Qantas engineers "broke in" the route, there were unscheduled diversions to Noumea, New Caledonia, to refuel. 

Eventually, on rare days when headwinds were too strong, 747 flights from Dallas were diverted to Auckland, New Zealand, where a relief crew was positioned to operate the rest of the journey to Brisbane and Sydney.

The A380 has almost 1000 nautical miles (1800 kilometres) more range than the 747-400ER, allowing Qantas to schedule non-stop travel in both directions – 15 hours 35 minutes from Sydney to Dallas with the prevailing tail wind and 16 hours 50 minutes coming home.

According to Qantas head of engineering, Alan Milne, the chance of diversions is "minimal – very minimal". "Based on our operational experience with the 747 and the trans-Pacific flying that we already do, either to Santiago with the 747s or Los Angeles with the A380s, we've got an enormous amount of data there so we are very confident there won't be any problems with that sector," he says.

Meanwhile, Boeing's Bruce Dickinson says Dallas-Sydney is tailor-made for the passenger version of the 747-8 – the 747-8I.

"This will be an amazing airplane on that route," he says. "It's a route we've studied. It's a route we have amazing economics on.

"We think Qantas is missing a big opportunity, frankly. This airplane, at the point we have it now, [uses] 8 per cent less fuel per seat than the A380 and 30 per cent less trip fuel [total fuel used] than the A380. It's amazingly more efficient, way less risk for an operator flying it economically and a perfect airplane for any region and particularly Australia where Qantas flies."

(These figures are hotly disputed by Airbus, although, in a case famous inside the industry, Boeing declared victory when the British Advertising Standards Authority dismissed a complaint about them by Airbus.)

Qantas will continue to use the 747-400 strategically before they're eventually phased out in 2018, to be replaced by a mix of A380s and, Qantas hopes (it depends on the profitability of its international network) Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners – a slightly bigger version of the 787-8s already flying for Jetstar.

In January, Qantas 747-400s will fly non-stop twice a week between Sydney and Vancouver, Canada, and the airline is studying whether the route can sustain profitable year-round operations. It was last week granted the right by Australia's International Air Services Commission to operate three 747s a week on the route.

Meanwhile, a fourth weekly Sydney-Santiago 747 frequency will begin on February 20 next year and Qantas will introduce three extra  evening Melbourne-Los Angeles flights a week on January 21.

While sales of very large airliners are slow, Boeing is talking to big "hub-and-spoke" operators such Emirates and Turkish Airlines about fitting the 350-450-seat 747-8I into the niche between the 450-550-seat A380 and the 300-350-seat 777-300ER and its future derivative, the 777-X. 

At the same, it continues to talk to present and past 747 operators, like Cathay Pacific, which operates the 747-8 freighter, and British Airways, which still has 46 747-400 jumbos and is the world's biggest operator of the type. 

In Asia-Pacific, the passenger version of the 747-8 will soon start flying with both Air China and Korean Airlines, after debuting with Lufthansa, which has ordered 19 of the jets.

It's not as if the 747 has lost its popularity with road warriors, especially business flyers, as its upper deck and downstairs nose zones, with their "private-jet feel",  remain a favourite among first and business class flyers, while the "dash eight" also employs additional noise-dampening throughout the aircraft.

And that's just on the inside.

"She's a beauty and she looks so graceful gliding through the air!" Long Island, New York, resident George Maccarone enthuses in a recent Boeing blog. "Having seen A380s approaching JFK [John F. Kennedy airport] for the last few years, I can tell you that the difference between the two aircraft is startling. 

"Seeing a 747-8I in the air is like watching Cinderella, while watching the A380 is like watching her ugly stepsister."