The biggest version yet of Boeing's iconic 747 could soon be flying into airports that have never seen aircraft that large, raising hackles among some airport neighbors.
Medium-size airports in Toledo, Ohio; Rockford, Ill., and Huntsville, Ala. are among those asking the Federal Aviation Administration for approval to receive the massive 747-8 freighter. Boeing expects to deliver the first planes to customers later this year.
The airports are eager to grab a share of the air cargo market, which is growing faster than passenger traffic as the economy recovers. But some residents feel threatened by the big cargo planes currently flying over their homes and doubt Boeing's claims that the new 747 won't be as noisy.
"When the planes come over, you just want to duck," said Mary Rose Evans, president of the Airport Neighbors Alliance in suburban Louisville. Evans said her house is just 500 feet below the flight path of incoming cargo planes.
The 747-8 is the biggest airplane Boeing has built, with a wingspan 11 feet wider and a body 18 feet longer than the current 747-400 model. Despite its size, Boeing says the 747-8's engines will be 30 percent quieter.
The 747-8 is now in testing. It's in the same new size category as the superjumbo Airbus 380. But while the A380 comes exclusively in a passenger version and flies only out of big international hubs like New York, the 747-8 has attracted the attention of cargo companies that intend to fly into lesser-known airfields.
For airports, cargo is big business. Air freight rose 10 percent between 2009 and 2010, from 20.7 million tons to 22.9 million. Growth in cargo far outstripped passenger service, which rose only 2 percent during the same period, from 767 million travelers to 782 million.
Getting approval for the 747-8 could woo more of that traffic, said Paul Toth, chief executive officer of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the Toledo Express Airport.
"When it comes to smaller airports, we think this kind of gives us a leg up," said Toth said.
But residents have fought airport expansion in courts in Toledo, Louisville, Indianapolis and other cities. Some worry about the damage a large freighter could cause if it crashes.
"Any mention of more planes or larger planes is a concern to us," said Brenda Jay, a resident in suburban Indianapolis. She and other homeowners lost a lawsuit against the city's airport, a major cargo hub, in 2007.
Noise control advocates caution that future aircraft designs might be larger and louder.
Ted Rueter, director of Noise-Free America, based in Albany, N.Y., believes the airports in medium-size communities are more concerned about money than "protecting citizens and minimizing noise."
The new Boeing falls into the largest class of airplane, known in the United States as Airplane Design Group VI. Most U.S. airports cannot legally handle these planes because of FAA space requirements aimed at keeping planes from bumping into each other or airport structures while taxiing.
But the FAA can issue a waiver, known as a modification of standards, if an airport agrees to certain new procedures, such as only using certain taxiways or routing other planes farther away when a 747-8 is moving around the airfield. At Rockford, Ill., officials promised to inspect a taxiway for any broken pavement or other debris every time a 747-8 taxis past.
The FAA has approved 747-8 waivers for 14 airports, compared to three waivers for the A380.
"It's a competitive issue for us," said Butch Roberts, deputy director of the Huntsville, Ala. airport. "We need to make it so our customers don't have to take their planes to Atlanta, for example."
Boeing says it is working with airports to win approval for 13 others, including Charleston, S.C., Louisville, K.Y. and Charlotte, N.C. Not all of those airports may require a waiver. In some cases, the FAA may decide they're already capable of handling Group VI aircraft.
"One of our selling points in this marketplace was that we wanted to make it where, if you could fly a '47-400 on that route you could fly a '47-8 on that route," said Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx.
Another 30 airports are approved as alternate landing sites in case a 747-8 has to land due to an emergency or bad weather.
Boeing has 107 orders for the 747-8, 74 of them freighters.
Atlas Air, a Purchase, N.Y. cargo company that flies to Toledo and other U.S. airports, has ordered 12 and expects to receive the first later this year. The cargo arm of Emirates Airlines, which also makes stops in Toledo, has ordered 15. Cargolux of Luxembourg, which flies to Huntsville, has ordered 13.
Ken Ryan, the director of cargo operations at the Rockford airport, has heard from foreign cargo airlines interested in finding a cheaper alternative to Chicago's O'Hare. Companies can save about $20,000 per 747 because of Rockford's lower landing fees, free aircraft parking, shorter taxi times and more direct approaches, he said.
Ryan said the 747-8 is likely to be an infrequent visitor to most airports until the fleet grows larger. And Boeing believes residents will find the 747-8 no more intrusive than other planes, Proulx said.
"They'll find out they're more quiet than previous generations," Proulx said. "It shouldn't be a problem at all."
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