A version of this article appears in the July 7 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

The 747-8 has given Boeing more than one reason for concern. But a renewed sales push and technical upgrades are intended to ensure production rates can slowly increase again.

Boeing is “very close” to reaching deals in sales campaigns for the 747-8 that would fill some empty production slots in 2016. “We want to be back at rate 1.75,” says 747 Vice President and General Manager Eric Lindblad. He declines to disclose the exact split between freighters and passenger aircraft but adds that “there are a lot of Intercontinentals in the conversations that we are having.” 

According to industry sources, Boeing is talking to up to four airlines in Asia and Europe about a potential order for the type. By contrast, Lindblad concedes that demand for the freighter version is still weak: “The freight market has to become better before we see a ton of activity.” Boeing is currently at a rate of 1.5 aircraft per month. “We expect the market to be in parity [equal sales of passenger and freighter aircraft] by 2016. That’s when we expect freighter sales to pick back up,” Lindblad says.

Sales of the 747-8 have lagged far behind initial expectations. Boeing has reached 120 firm orders, and 69 aircraft have been delivered so far. After Lufthansa, Air China will become the second passenger airline to take delivery of a 747-8 later this year—its first aircraft is receiving its interiors on the Everett final assembly line—and Korean Air is to follow in 2015.

Boeing has been pitching the aircraft to Emirates Airline for flights from Dubai to the U.S. West Coast, but Emirates Airline President Tim Clark has publicly discarded the idea. Emirates flies the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 to destinations on the West Coast now. Turkish Airlines also has been named as a potential 747-8 operator.

As part of the campaigns, Boeing is still talking to airlines about 747-8 improvements that have been defined in “Project Ozark,” some of which have already been introduced. “We can have an aircraft that can do 8,200 nautical miles if we have the right customers,” Lindblad says. The current 747-8 has a design range of 7,700 nm with full reserves and 467 passengers. All of the Ozark improvements combined would lead Boeing to raise maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) beyond 1 million lb. from the current 987,000 lb.

“We have not launched Ozark, but we have taken items off the list,” Lindblad says. Aircraft coming off the line today are 3.5% better in terms of fuel burn than the aircraft initially delivered. Lufthansa, which took delivery of its 14th 747-8 at the end of June, says the aircraft is now meeting the performance specifications guaranteed by Boeing. The airline has 19 747-8s on firm order.

According to Lufthansa’s executive vice president for fleet management, Nico Buchholz, the in-service fleet can be upgraded to reach a 2% improvement mainly by bringing engines up to the performance improvement package (PIP) standard during shop visits. But he says, “we want to see further improvements.”

Upgrades already implemented include the PIP, the tail fuel tank activation and a flight management computer (FMC) modernization, among others. Boeing has so far reached a 9,000-lb. weight reduction and wants to reach 10,000 lb. before  year-end. That target was originally planned to be reached only in 2016.

In 2013, the empty weight of the aircraft was a bit more than 7,000 lb. lighter than when the 747-8 first entered service in 2011. “Now it has grown to 9,000 pounds. I don’t think we will stop at 10,000 pounds,” Lindblad says.

“The max zero fuel-weight reduction currently offered for the -8F is outside the former Ozark package and provides more capacity for the freighter market,” he adds. The -8F has a 4,400-nm range with a full payload of 135 tons.

The overall goal is “primarily about overall efficiency; it would not be a specific fuel-consumption improvement on the engine,” Lindblad says. “It would include an aerodynamic component and continued weight improvements as well as a maximum take-off weight increase.” The aerodynamic improvements encapsulated within the Ozark package include “some of the fairings adjacent to the horizontal tail [and] the wing-to-body fairing, and in the scalloped area of the thrust reverser,” he adds. The upgrade would focus on “thinning” of the chevrons on the trailing edge of the GEnx-2B nacelle.

“Those are the major pieces of the menu,” Lindblad says. “We will still go after some of the smaller aero packages, but the wing-to-body fairing is a fairly large-scale job, so we’d probably wait to see if we need to get to 8,200 nautical miles. It is the same with the MTOW. We will wait to see if we need to do that. So far, we would have to have a launch customer, and it is a sizable investment.”

Boeing is also continuing to drive improvements in the production system that will help keep costs in check despite production volumes that are lower than hoped. “It has finally started to stabilize following the difficult years during the development cycle,” Lindblad says. “We were equivalent of about four days behind schedule and today we are about 1.5 days behind schedule. So, with stability, we see that giving us the opportunity to drive down operational costs. We have had a chance to drive flow reductions and improve operational efficiency within each area of the factory and start to now look at other things that allow efficiency to take place.”

These include improvements to the process used to fasten fuselage lap-splice joints where two panels come together with three rows of fasteners. “On the 747, all of those are done with a human, and in June we started going through the validation cycle to use flextrack drillers, which are used on the 777 now,” Lindblad says. “It is our intent to use this technology across the majority of the 747 fuselage lapjoints as well as the circumferential joints. We will start first with lap joints across forward [Sections 41/42] and aft [Sections 46/48] in subsequent phases, and while we are doing that will bring in circumferential joints beginning with the aft joint in Section 44. We are not only investing in the product but also the production system. There is a lot of time left on this aircraft.”