Is Boeing (NYSE:BA) back?

With the stock up almost 40% over the past 52 weeks, and outperforming the S&P 500 by nearly 17 percentage points, investors are showing a lot of confidence in the company's prospects. And similar, if more muted, outperformance in the stocks of suppliers like General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Spirit AeroSystems (NYSE:SPR) supports this thesis. To its credit, Boeing's doing its darnedest to reward investors for its patience and prove to suppliers that it's finally got its act together.

After years of delays and postponements, the company finally got its 787 "Dreamliner" program airborne in December. Earlier this week, management scored its second PR victory in recent months, when the also-delayed 747-8 freighter made its inaugural test flight. Touching down at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Monday evening, the 747-8's first 200 minutes of air time was blissfully unremarkable, with pilot Mark Feuerstein commenting: "The airplane performed as expected and handled just like a 747-400."

Now begins a 1,600 flight-hour process of testing and getting the 747-8 certified for FAA flight, hopefully culminating in deliveries to customers beginning toward year-end. Boeing's hoping that the new plane's quiet operation, improved fuel efficiency, and lower emissions will win it significant market share in the passenger and freight markets. Still, while the 747-8 is Boeing's biggest plane, it's smaller than rival Airbus's A380 -- although Boeing argues will make it cheaper to operate and capable of serving more markets.

And yet ... Boeing's got some serious catching up to do if it hopes to make good on that boast. Although the 747-8 has 108 orders to its credit so far, Airbus's A380 has enjoyed nearly double that success -- 202 orders booked to-date, with 25 planes already in operation at four separate airlines. Diffusing the costs of the $1 billion-charge to earnings it's taken on the plane's development will require putting a whole lot more 747-8 orders on the books.

Where to look for a bigger book?
Where will 747-8 find the customers? After all, it doesn't want to cannibalize 787 sales into the airborne passenger market. My guess is that Boeing should look to the freighter market, where the A380 seems to be struggling. AIG's (NYSE:AIG) ILFC leasing subsidiary reportedly converted five of its A380 freighter orders to passenger variants back in 2006, and as recently as June of last year was said to be reconsidering whether it needs any A380s at all. Meanwhile, both UPS (NYSE:UPS) and FedEx (NYSE:FDX) canceled their orders for A380 freighters back in 2006 and 2007.) Due to these cancellations, Airbus has suspended its A380 freighter program although it remains open to offering a future version after prioritizing the passenger model.

Yep. If Boeing hopes to deliver a win with the 747-8, its best bet is to ship it by freighter.

Editor's note: This article has been changed to indicate that the 1,600 hours of testing is "flight hours," and also to clarify the current status of Airbus' A380 program.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. FedEx is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Spirit AeroSystems Holdings is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.