End of an Iconic Era: The passenger Boeing 747

As a young kid, I had a (well-documented) affinity with aircraft. My father and I used to walk down the street from our house in rural Maine to the local air strip, and I would watch the prop planes take off and land. However, it wasn’t until I got older that I started to learn about different types of airliners. And while I’ve been fortunate enough to fly on a variety of different planes over the years, one stands above the rest: the Boeing 747.

The 747 Story

The 747 is a timeless classic — aesthetically and otherwise — whose impact has been like no other. Its distinctive “hump” and four engines are unmistakably unique. It was the plane that revolutionized air travel, making it accessible to the masses.

Ironically, though, it wasn’t even supposed to be more than a stop-gap. Back  in the 1960s, supersonic air travel was thought to be only a few years away. Of course, this didn’t happen for a number of reasons, namely that fuel burn and aircraft stress is disproportionately affected by supersonic travel, as well as the fact that — following tests — civilian aircraft weren’t allowed to fly supersonic over land within the United States. The buzz of supersonic travel came and went, but the 747 stayed.

Even the Airbus A380 — which, in 2007, overtook the 747 as the largest passenger aircraft in service — didn’t have the same impact as the original Jumbo, and the A380 program is largely being kept alive by Emirates. The 747, however, has sold more than 1,500 frames, both cargo and passenger.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

That said, we are entering the twilight years for the 747. Delta Air Lines — the last U.S. carrier to operate the passenger type — will fly its final 747 flight next month. Moreover, the newest passenger variant, the 747-8, is only in service with three carriers: Air China, Korean Air, and Lufthansa. Even British Airways, the world’s largest operator of the 747-400, has stated its intention to retire the fleet by 2024. As cliche as it is, we are entering the end of an era.

A Change in the Landscape

With all that 747s have done over the years, why retire something that has served so many airlines so well?

The answer is multifaceted, but it ultimately comes down to technology. As noted in an earlier blog post, aircraft manufacturers have begun to produce twin-engine aircraft that are more efficient than the 747 yet can handle the same number of passengers. The Boeing 777-300ER (77W), for example, has 85% of the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) as a 747-400. It can also hold near the same number of passengers — and it only has two engines. The 77W is newer, more efficient, and — most importantly — provides airlines with lower fuel costs. Gone are the days when the 747’s unparalleled capacity made it the choice for certain long-haul routes.

Why Not the 747-8?

There has been much made of the lack of success of the 747-8, Boeing’s newest incarnation of a classic. And while some have suggested that it was Boeing’s meek response to the A380 — which, despite outperforming the 747-8, hasn’t exactly been a resounding success — there are a number of factors at play (and it would take another article to cover that). Regardless, the 747-8 is never going to stem the tidal wave of long-haul twin-engine aircraft being purchased, so it’s understandable that it hasn’t been able to continue the 747 passenger jet legacy.

An Indisputable Impact

As outlined, there are many reasons that the Boeing 747 is being retired. However, while the importance of various factors could (and will) be debated for years to come, what’s not up for debate is its impact on aviation. From the 747-100’s maiden New York to London flight with Pan Am World Airways, to the development and debut of the 747-400, which would go on to become arguably the most iconic airliner of all time, it has withstood the test of time, and 2019 will mark 50 years since the type first took flight. I have even had the chance to fly on the type three times, and found each flight to be an incredible experience.

It will be a sad day when the last 747 lands for the final time. However, despite retirement of the type increasing, we are still a long way off from that. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy its remaining time in the air.

What’s Interesting About Aviation?

I’ve been asked a lot of times “why do [I] like airplanes?” Often times, my first reaction is to correct the person asking the question by telling them that “I’m interested in aviation (and not airplanes).” This may be unnecessary – in fact it probably is – but I think that simply saying that I “like airplanes” is vastly oversimplified, and makes me sound like a child easily fascinated by moving objects. Of course,  I’m never going to be able to control others’ perceptions of my interest, and I am a person who over-analyzes things in general, so I definitely understand the perception, even if I disagree with its label. Regardless, it certainly is an interesting question, and one whose answer I have contemplated time and time again over the years.

The honest answer is that there is no one particular area that catches my interest. With that in mind, I’ve divided it up into a variety of different areas. Some are able to be explained in a few sentences. Some require a number of different bullets. Some I can’t even begin to fully explain. Either way, I thought it would be interesting to share some insight into just what it is that I find intriguing.

The “Inner-Five-Year-Old” Factor

Face it, flying is something that (most of us) don’t do every day. As such, it’s understandable that one might be fascinated with the fundamentals of being in the air, even if one has flown on a particular aircraft or particular route before.

  1. Sitting inside a plane and hearing the fans go quiet, followed by the gradual grind of a jet engine starting.
  2. The noise of engines spooling up from idle to takeoff thrust (TOGA), whether sitting in front of or behind the fan.
  3. Hearing the thuds of the wheels going down the runway as a plane embarks on its takeoff roll.
  4. Feeling gravity “push down” as the plane takes off.
  5. The feeling of empowerment as the plane climbs out of the airport with takeoff power set.
  6. Visual differences between parts of the world that are moving quickly (flying over highway interchanges) versus standing still (flying over farms).
  7. Hearing (and feeling) the landing gear “bump” as it comes out prior to landing.
  8. Flying low over urban areas, getting slower and slower, while coming into land.
  9. Seeing the airport’s landscape suddenly appear under the plane.
  10. The moment of touchdown, signaling the completion of the time in air.
The Competitive Factor

Even considering the incredible breakthroughs that we as humans have had over time, flying is arguably up there with the best – it’s the fastest mode of transportation we’ve devised thus far. And I don’t care how strong you think you are – a jet engine is more powerful. Moreover, as I explained in my report chronicling my first Boeing 747 trip, I find the idea of an airport having transatlantic service as, in a way, a successful competitive triumph. Airlines don’t just take a plunge on starting long-haul service anywhere, and “making it” as far as being able to sustain those flights is certainly notable.

Admiration by the General Population

I enjoy seeing people who aren’t airplane fanatics (e.g. the general population) take a moment out of their day to look up at a jumbo and comment on its sheer power – power that can not be matched by any human. Of course, we humans are not designed to generate the same power as a GE90, and thus a shouldn’t be expected to compare ourselves to the power of a jet engine, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be impressed by them.

Unique (and Unknown) Narrations

One of the more interesting things that I’ve found is when I’m flying home late in the day – particularly after sunset. Passing over a variety of metropolitan areas, all one can really see is the extensive range of lights – most of which are houses – present on the ground. As cliche as it sounds, each light has its own story. One may be the home of a young family, with parents trying to get their kids ready for school tomorrow. Another may be the home of a retired couple relaxing in their living room, watching the evening news. Yet another might be a studio apartment, with a single urban dweller hanging out on Facebook. I often find myself wondering what the story is behind each of those lights – and though I’ll never know, it is interesting to imagine.

Another in-flight observation that I find fascinating happens mostly during descent. Following takeoff, an aircraft gains altitude and speed at extremely high rates, so it’s difficult to observe much in depth. Leading up to landing, however, the aircraft is – generally speaking – much “lower and slower,” giving passengers an excellent view of cars driving up and down roads and highways. Much like the houses, each car has its own story. A row of cars may feature someone heading home from work, another person venturing to the grocery store, and yet another person heading out to meet a friend. There’s absolutely no way to know the true story behind all of these cars, and perhaps that’s what makes it intriguing.

The Unparalleled Complexities
  1. Think about how many steps/logistics/etc. go into a single flight. (I don’t have an actual number, since it is variable, but just imagine.)
  2. Know that approximately 100,000 commercial flights take off and land every day around the world.
  3. With those two pieces of knowledge, think about how every flight – each with its own set of steps, requirements, etc. – has to fit into the massive global puzzle comprised of approximately 100,000 flights per day.
  4. Realize how safe commercial aviation is, despite the sheer amount of logistics that every flight crew (on their own flight) and every controller (in keeping airports and air spaces efficient and safe) must deal with. Pretty impressive.
The Factor of the Unknown

Even though I’ve gained a significant amount of aviation knowledge over the years, there is still a significant amount of information I don’t know or experiences I haven’t had. This, ultimately, is what keeps me interested.

Next Big Trip Up: England in the Spring

My trip to England in Fall 2014 was my first across the pond in more than 10 years. Given that England is my favorite foreign country, I knew that I didn’t want the next one to be 10 years down the road. Back then, as a gift for my graduation from college, my parents were nice enough to pay for my airfare. The base fare was $952 on British Airways, which was pretty cheap for non stop BOS-LHR flights at the time (it ended up being $1,034 altogether with window seat reservations both ways). More importantly, I was able to fly on the Boeing 747-400 both ways, which was an incredible experience. All told, I was extremely happy with that trip. That said, I’m similarly excited for my upcoming trip to England.

Pricing

This time, I myself paid for the trip. It was $504.89 base fare, and came out to a total of $576.89 with window seat reservations both ways. As good as that base fare is, it’s not even the lowest that it’s been – British Airways was selling $460 BOS-LHR round trips in November. Regardless, the fact that there has been a $447 reduction in the base fare on the BOS-LHR route from the last time I went to this time – from $952 to $505 – is insane.

Aircraft

You might well know that I am partial to the 747 over the Airbus A380, the latter of which BA is scheduled to begin flying to BOS at the end of March. However, having enjoyed my flight on a China Southern A380 during my trip last month, I decided that I did want to fly on the A380 at least one of the legs of this trip. Since I enjoy the flight home more than the flight over, I figured I would take the 747 on my favored leg of the trip and the A380 on the other leg.

The Itinerary:

  • 04/09/2017 – BA212 – 7:20 p.m. departure (spring schedule) – A380-800
  • 04/17/2017 – BA203 – 4:45 p.m. departure – 747-400

I am seated on the World Traveller upper deck section of the A380, in 82K, and the World Traveller main deck section of the 747, in 49A. Both are window seats – the first on the right, the second on the left.

Other Factoids

Flights I’ve Taken Between U.S. and U.K.:

  • 11/25/2014 – BA212 – 5:55 p.m. departure (fall schedule) – 747-400
  • 12/02/2014 – BA213 – 11:20 a.m. departure – 747-400
  • 11/10/2004 – BA238 – 8:10 a.m. departure – 777-200ER
  • 11/16/2014 – BA213 – 11:20 a.m. departure – 777-200ER

So, to this point, I’ve taken BA213 twice, BA212 once, and BA238 once.

I do like BA213 a lot because it’s a late-morning departure from London and an early-afternoon arrival in Boston, but it’s being operated by an A380 that day, so I decided to take BA203 instead for the 747, which still gets me back around 7 p.m.

Other Notes and Overall Thoughts

While I’m in England, I plan to take a couple of short Euro trips – to Brussels and Amsterdam. Each city was decided somewhat on a whim, but I am confident I’ll enjoy them.

My dad went to Brussels back in 2002, via London. He very much enjoyed taking the Eurostar train through the countryside of France on the way to Belgium. I’ll be taking that train, too, and for less than $90 round trip.

Amsterdam is a fascinating city that I’ve always wanted to see. Also, the easyJet flights were running for around $75 round trip from London Southend, so that should be fun. Two new countries for less than $200 in travel expenses – I’m happy with it.

I’m pretty excited to have finally booked this. The last time I went to England, I was very focused on the excitement of flying on the 747. As a result, the way over was very much a blur (albeit an awesome one). This time, having been on both the 747 and A380, I’ll definitely try to relax and enjoy the flights (and the trip) a lot more.

The Boeing 757: A “sports car” in the sky

While technology has led to extensive change within the automotive industry, one thing has remained constant: sports cars are timeless classics. So the fact that the Boeing 757 was last produced 12 years ago means that its reputation as a “sports car” will likely remain intact for years to come.

The Race Car of the Sky

For those of you not familiar, the 757 is a very unique airplane. It’s not quite big enough to be a wide body, but larger than virtually any other narrow body. It has a long fuselage, powerful engines, and incredible wake turbulence.  It even makes air traffic controllers give special warnings to aircraft following behind.

It’s also capable of flying an incredible variety of routes. From Miami to Orlando (192 miles) to Newark to Berlin (3,973 miles), the 757 is a jack of all trades. Perhaps the largest factor that makes it unique, however, is the engines that power it. Equipped with either the Rolls-Royce RB211-535s or the Pratt & Whitney PW2000s, which are capable of producing in the range of high 30,000 lbs. force to low 40,000 lbs. force each, the 757 has been described as being “overpowered.” It boasts a significantly higher thrust-to-weight ratio than a variety of other aircraft. Regardless, when one puts a pair of powerful engines on an otherwise “light” aircraft, the result is the predictable.

An Experience Like No Other

I myself got to experience the power of the 757’s engines a month ago. Though I’d wanted to sit in front of the fans on a British Airways 747 in order to hear the unique buzzsaw of the RB211-524s, I realized that a much more cost-effective way of hearing an RB211 on takeoff power – rather than spending an extra few hundred dollars to sit in World Traveller Plus – would be to ride at the front of a 757-200 and hear the RB211-535s. Needless to say, it was an incredibly cool experience.

To be sure, I’m still a 747 fan first and foremost, as the four engines, two decks, and unparalleled impact on aviation are all unique to the first jumbo jet ever produced. However, I have a new, unique appreciation for the 757.