With a “vibrant and dynamic” orange-red livery that customers in its all-important Asian markets associate with prosperity and success, Boeing rolled out the 747-8 Intercontinental passenger jet Sunday in a celebration attended by 10,000 employees and guests.

“This is a new airplane and we wanted a new livery,” Boeing Vice President and airplane production chief Pat Shanahan said as a curtain dropped revealing the 467-passenger jet. “We wanted to be seen as vibrant and dynamic.”

Although it is the third generation of what is probably the world’s most recognized jet, the 747-8 is the first time the four-engine aircraft has been stretched. It is now 250 ft. 2-in. long, – 18 ft. more than the 747 “classics” or 747-400, and carries 51 more passengers in a nominal three-class seating. Flight testing is expected to start in late March with FAA certification and first delivery in the fourth quarter.

For more than a decade, Boeing promoted various upgrades to the hugely successful 747-400 but made little headway with the business case until it could offer them with the 67,000 lb. thrust General Electric GEnx-2B67 engines, derived from engines developed for the 787. They are hung from a new 224-ft. 7 in. super-critical wing that includes new flaps, and fly-by-wire spoilers and ailerons. The aircraft also incorporates a larger empennage, new avionics and a 787-inspired interior.

That combination forms the backbone for Boeing’s claim that when it enters service early next year with Lufthansa German Airlines, the 747-8 will offer 16% better fuel economy than the -400 and a 12% advantage of seat-mile costs.

Despite those advantages, Boeing has found only lukewarm acceptance of the passenger version of the 747-8. Lufthansa has ordered 20, Korean Air five and private parties – mostly believed to be foreign governments – have asked for eight in a Boeing Business Jet version. In contrast, the 747-8 Freighter has registered 64 orders. It is now in flight testing with first delivery to Cargolux set for the third quarter 2011.

Lufthansa Executive Vice President Nico Buchholz said the carrier began considering a successor to its 747-400 fleet in 2002. It had two criteria: “a little more performance” – which really means much better fuel burn and some additional range -- and a better environmental package to meet Europe’s increasingly stringent requirements to reduce noise and pollution.

Boeing vice president and deputy program manager Elizabeth Lund is optimistic that lessons learned during flight tests of the 747-8F freighter will enable the faced-paced 600-hour plus -8I test effort to stay on track for completion before year-end. “The schedule is aggressive but achievable and we’re performing to plan at this point. Based on what we’re learning on the freighter it gives us confidence about how it will perform,” she says.

Following the first flight of RC001 late in March a second test aircraft, RC021, will follow after “about a month,” says Lund. A third 747-8I will supplement the final phase by conducting high intensity radiated fields (HIRF) and electromagnetic interference tests of the interior and its systems. “We’re already off to a good start,” says Lund. “We rolled it out factory complete, and that’s a sign of how ready it is. We rolled it out on time (to a date) we committed to last November.”

Lund says key challenges for the -8I flight test program will be validating handling qualities of the aircraft with the stretched upper deck (the -8F retains the original short upper deck), as well as tests of the environmental control system (ECS) and the ability of sensors to detect smoke in the interior.

Boeing 747 vice president engineering, Todd Zarfos says the -8I “is a smaller test program. It will mostly be aimed at proving the interior, as well as some stability and control tests, and flutter – though much smaller in scope than on the -8F.” The second aircraft will be focused on ECS and interiors test work, while the short duration testing of the third aircraft will be used for HIRF susceptibility evaluation and other “first of model type tests. But we could think of it as a two aircraft test program,” he adds.