Boeing (NYSE:BA) has struggled to sustain the 747 program within a rough market for the jumbo. An anemic number of orders have ground down to virtually zero in the last year. However, in a recent report, an unidentified third party is said to have pitched the 747-8 to Gulf airline Emirates in an effort to infuse life into the fading "Queen of the Skies."

Emirates has been a dedicated customer of the Airbus (OTC:EADSY) A380, and has expressed interest in buying more A380s on condition that the European company fits new engines on the double-decker aircraft. Against this backdrop, does Boeing have the slimmest of chances to win an Emirates order?

Boeing 747-8i. Source: Boeing.

Courting Emirates
This isn't the first time Emirates has received a proposal for the 747-8. Last year, Boeing held discussions to sell its 747-8 for the Gulf carrier's Dubai to U.S. West Coast flights. However, Emirates CEO Tim Clark poured cold water on the proposal.

In the latest development, Leeham News and Comment reported in early February that Emirates has received an informal proposal from a third party that is trying to pitch in 100 747-8s. Boeing has confirmed it hasn't approached Emirates for the deal. However, the Chicago-based aero major would be more than happy to land such a massive order. Adding Emirates to the list of 747 customers would give the hard-to-sell passenger version a much-required boost.

The 747 has a thin backlog of 35 units -- 23 for the 747-8 and 12 for the 747-8F. This would evaporate in two years at current annual production rate of 18. In September, the company will cut the production rate to 16 a year.

If the deal materializes, it would mean a $37 billion worth of business at list price. It will also help the company recover $1.2 billion in deferred and unamortized costs on the 747 program. But why should Emirates consider the 747-8?

Emirates' stand
The airline has been quite vocal about the fact that the 747-8 is smaller than the A380 and doesn't fit in the carrier's business plan. This is the prime reason why time and again Emirates has refused to consider the plane.

The A380--with higher passenger capacity better range and greater cargo space--is so popular among Emirates customers that the flight to London's Heathrow airport is 90% full on an average. Quite obviously, the airline is keen on continuing with the model and has pressed Airbus to fit new engines on it to trim fuel cost. Last September, Emirates said it would order 60 to 70 A380neos (new engine option, or neo, is the term Airbus uses for planes that are being upgraded), if the plane maker comes up with one. 

Data source: Airbus and Boeing. Chart by author.

In January, Clark presented an even more attractive proposal to buy 100 superjumbos "if you're (Airbus) going to do the Neo." So, Airbus already has a $43 billion business (at list price) on the table. And Boeing doesn't seem to be anywhere in the picture.

However, as Steve Wilhelm of the Puget Sound Business Journal wrote earlier this month, "in the politics of aircraft purchases, that position could be overridden by the company's chairman, Sheik Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum." Interestingly, according to the Leeham report, the third party is in talks with the chairman and not Clark.

Boeing's outside chance
Though Airbus must be taking the upgrade option more seriously now, it's a tough decision. The plane maker has already invested about $25 billion in A380 that it has yet to recover. For A380neo engines, it would have to partner with Rolls-Royce for new engines and pursue a certification upgrade that would add to the cost. Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said he believes "an A380neo would be an act of madness for Airbus."

In contrast, Boeing is making engine improvements to the GEnx-powered 747-8 in its performance improvement packages, or PIPs, code-named Project Ozark, without having to spend on recertification. If Airbus doesn't make the A380neo and the PIPs fetch good efficiencies, Emirates might give the 747-8 a thought.

Emirates A380. Source: Emirates.

Another reason the 747-8 stands a chance is that Boeing can start delivering the plane before Airbus by using 747's production gaps in the current and next two years. Airbus and Rolls-Royce, on the other hand, might need until 2020-2021 to make the A380neo, if they make one at all, according to Leeham News. 

Also, later during the year, Emirates will weigh options for its medium-haul flights. The Boeing 787-9/10, and Airbus A350-900/1000 will be the contenders. Leeham reported Boeing could add the 747-8 to this proposal. 

Tying it all together
There are good reasons for Emirates to stick to the A380, but there are reasons to try the 747, too. While a far-fetched possibility, an order for 100 747-8 would no doubt give a big lift to the iconic program. Boeing and its investors can hope for the best.