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The Boeing (BA) - Get Free Report 747-8 has followed an unusual development path. The aircraft's cargo version came ahead of the passenger version, the first delivery in 2011 was to Luxembourg's CargoLux, and even today cargo accounts for the majority of the limited sales the aircraft has seen.

"Normally, you build a lot of passenger planes and then you can also support a freighter program with one or two sales a month," said Bob Dahl, managing director of Seattle air freight consulting firm Air Cargo Management Group.

"If you have to live totally on the freighter sales, that can be a challenge," Dahl said. "When you come down to having a program with one sale a month, that's not a very profitable undertaking."

Much of the world views the 747-8 as representing the tail end of the 747 program. It's one of the most successful programs ever but one that is now long in the tooth given not only more than 1,500 deliveries but also the development of the Airbus A340, which can fly longer trips; the Boeing 777, which is more fuel-efficient; and the A380, which can carry more passengers.

Recall that the first 747 was delivered in 1970 to then-greatest airline, Pan Am, and christened by then-First Lady Pat Nixon, as just a few signs that the world has changed somewhat dramatically.

Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group, said the 747 is in its "death throes" because "nobody wants a quadjet {four-engine airplane} anymore."

Development of the Boeing 777-9 combined with weak cargo growth, the availability of both twin-engine alternatives and used four-engine aircraft all hurt demand for the 747-8. "It can't survive as a niche cargo aircraft much beyond 2020," Aboulafia said.

Boeing has said it will slow 747 production from 1.3 jets per month today to just one jet per month in March. That comes at a time, Aboulafia said, "when widebodies have never been more popular."

Last week, Boeing delivered two 747-8 freighters to the Russian carrier AirBridge Cargo Airlines. Buried in the sales announcement was the statistic that one of the two new freighters delivered to Air Bridge was the 100th 747-8 delivered by Boeing.

Through October, Boeing had taken orders for 68 747-8 freighters, with 60 delivered. Top customers include Cargolux and Cathay Pacific, each with 14 orders including 13 delivered aircraft.

Also through October, Boeing had 51 orders for the passenger version with 37 delivered. Top customers include Lufthansa, which has taken 19 aircraft, and Korean Air, which has ordered 10 and taken three.

"Boeing is now down to just 22 unfilled orders for the 747-8, consisting of eight freighter models and 14 passenger jets," The Seattle Times reported Saturday. "However, those figures include various dubious sales," the newspaper reported, listing six dubious sales including four to the Russian carrier Transero, which has ceased operations.

"Despite the dwindling orders, Boeing is hoping it can stretch out 747-8 production through 2018 when it wants to build at least two highly customized Air Force One models for the president," the newspaper said. "It looks like the 747-8 can survive only if there's an upturn in the world air-cargo market, which has been in a prolonged slump since the 2008 financial crisis."

Dahl said the 747-8 has this going for it: "It is the biggest, most capable freighter out there. Oftentimes in the freighter business, the unit cost goes down as the size of the airplane goes up. There are not a lot of candidate airlines {to buy it}, but there are a few and most airlines that have ordered it have placed follow-on orders."

He noted that Airbus once contemplated an A380 freighter for which FedEx and UPS were potential customers, but in 2006 and 2007, facing long delays, both of the U.S. overnight cargo carriers canceled their orders. Eventually, FedEx picked the 777, UPS acquired 747-400s and the A380 freighter was never built.

That left Boeing all alone in the market for four-engine cargo aircraft. Sadly, there isn't much of a market to be had.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.