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.