A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400, with Tail Number G-VROC, lands at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco
London - Boeing has a temporary plan to save the iconic but slow-selling 747 jumbo jetliner: buying its own planes and leasing them to cargo haulers.

With the effective shutdown by Congress of the US Export-Import Bank - which traditionally has helped overseas carriers purchase planes - Boeing lost a key sales tool. Making matters worse, leasing companies have been hesitant to finance a plane with a dwindling customer base. 

So Boeing is now renting out the massive, hump-backed 747s to cargo carriers in countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan, which increases the company’s exposure to potential defaults on payments.

Through the end of last year, Boeing had provided financing valued at $1.26billion (R16.2bn) to 747 customers through Boeing Capital, regulatory filings show.

That’s about a fivefold increase from the close of 2012. In fact, 747-related loans and operating leases now account for about one-quarter of the portfolio managed by Boeing’s lending arm.

As the air-cargo market recovers, the strategy may pay off for Boeing.

The manufacturer recently landed a crucial 747 order from United Parcel Service that could serve as a bridge to the future for the wide-body plane.

But tomorrow’s 747 - a symbol of luxury travel when it made its debut with Pan-American World Airways in 1970 - most likely won’t be flying globe-trotting tourists.

Read also: Boeing opens offices in Johannesburg and Nairobi

It will instead haul oversize cargo like oil-drilling equipment as demand fades for bulky four-engine passenger carriers.

“We believe in the long-term need for this aircraft,” said George Dimitroff, head of valuations for Flight Ascend Consultancy. “As long as they don’t over-produce, which Boeing aren’t doing at the current rate, we believe there will be long-term demand.”

Boeing recorded more than $2.1bn in losses on the 747-8, the latest version, in 2015 and 2016 as it slowed production to keep pace with dwindling sales.

The company received a big boost last year when UPS (United Parcel Service) ordered 14 of the jumbo freighters and took options that would double the original order size.

The sale was the largest Boeing has landed for the redesigned 747 since 2007, the manufacturer’s website said.

But it’s unusual and risky for a plane-maker to buy and lease its own product on a large scale.