Boeing 747-8 first flight: smooth test, but economic turbulence ahead

Boeing's 747-8 is flying into stormy economic skies as airlines try to rebound from their worst year in the postwar era.

Ted S. Warren/AP
With an observation plane at upper right, the Boeing 747-8 took off for its first flight Feb. 8, in Everett, Wash. With the airline industry still recovering from its steepest dive in the postwar era, it may be some time before Boeing's largest plane turns a profit.

Boeing's new 747-8, its largest-ever plane, took off for the first time on Monday. Although delayed by weather, its maiden test flight was almost certainly smoother than its economic prospects.

Conceived as both a freighter and a passenger plane, the 747-8 is expected to hit the market last this year as airlines struggle to recover from their steepest decline in the postwar era.

Passenger demand fell 3.5 percent last year with an average load factor of 75.6 percent, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Freight traffic was worse: down 10 percent with a load factor just under 50 percent. (Load factors refer to how much of a plane's capacity is in use during an average flight.)

Traffic is rebounding, but with the industry due to take delivery on at least another 1,300 aircraft, excess capacity will continue to pressure profits, the IATA says.

That's a tough environment for manufacturers selling big new airplanes like the 747-8, especially with hot competition from the Airbus 380 on the passenger side of things. So far, Boeing has sold only 108 planes (most of the freighters) and has taken a $1 billion write-down on the development program.

Still, the jumbo jet boasts some innovative technology that should win it customers when the international economy improves. Boeing claims the plan is 10 percent less costly to operate per seat-mile and 15 percent more efficient than the 747-400, which it is set to replace.

Its new General Electric engines also produce fewer emissions than previous models, Boeing says.

You can find a video detailing the plane's construction here.

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