LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Residents here might do a double take after seeing the extra long, white and brown-tailed jumbo jet flying overhead lately.
UPS air operations in Louisville just took delivery of the largest jumbo jet made in the United States on Sept. 29, and it will begin carrying cargo in a week or two. For now, it has been cruising from Louisville International Airport on proving runs.
It's the first of 14 Boeing 747-8 freighter jets that the shipper ordered a year ago, UPS spokesman Jim Mayer said.
The bulk purchase is part of a broader push by the company to enlarge its global reach and boost capacity on its busiest routes. Two more of the -8's, as they're called, will arrive this fall in time for the holiday peak season starting at Thanksgiving.
UPS, FedEx and other shippers are investing billions of dollars to modernize and enlarge package handling hubs in an e-commerce industry valued at $500 million. They're also are buying aircraft to boost capacity in their networks.
When the Boeing contract – with an option to buy 14 more later – was announced last fall, UPS chairman and chief executive David Abney said the "investments will help enable customers to expand their presence in new and existing markets..."
The new jets join the current fleet of 500 aircraft, which will allow the company to reassign its next smaller jumbos, the 747-400's, to its high-traffic routes and enlarge capacity. The Louisville-based aircraft fly from here to Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to hubs in Asia, including Hong Kong, Mayer said.
At 64 feet tall and 250 feet long, the craft is 20 feet longer than the 747-400. It can carry up to 307,000 pounds of cargo – 34 shipping containers on its main deck and 14 in the lower compartments. That amounts to about 16 percent more capacity than the 747-400.
UPS wouldn't disclose the value of the 14-jet contract, but airline experts estimate the retail list price of a single -8 at about $379 million.
UPS probably got a far sweeter price because demand for both of the four-engine Airbus 380 and the Boeing 747-8 has lagged. It's far more fuel efficient to fly twin-engine models for long distances now, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, which analyzes the airline industry.
Plus, commercial carriers also are freeing place in the lower holds to transport cargo. That's decreased the need for mega-freighters. All in all, "I'm sure UPS got a very good deal," Kaplan said.
Residents of Audubon Park and Old Louisville, who have complained for years about airport noise levels and emissions, may feel they'll be the losers once the new jumbos take flight.
In the last week, the mayor and Audubon Park homeowners have raised the alarm over more frequent flights over Preston Highway – which airport officials said has been necessitated because of short-term work on runways.
UPS offered reassurances: A sleeker wing design and General Electric's new engines cut carbon emissions from the 747-8 by 16 percent. Noise levels have been trimmed by 30 percent, compared with the 747-400 and the MD-11.
Mayer said having one large freighter jet, instead of two or three smaller aircraft flying in and out of the local airspace, helps reduce overall noise and pollution.