Boeing 747 should have retired years ago

11 months ago
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1574th and The final 747 rolled off the Boeing production line in Everett, Washington on Jan. 31 to carry cargo around the world on behalf of New York-based cargo company Atlas Air.

This is an unremarkable end to an era of aviation that began more than half a century ago. The first Boeing 747 — “the plane that ‘shrinked the world’ and revolutionized travel” — according to Stan Deal, President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes — was introduced in 1968. Since then, this aircraft has remained a workhorse for airlines around the world and as a symbol of the lost “golden age” of air travel, despite being long surpassed by newer and better aircraft. “Technology has come a long way,” says John Strickland, aviation analyst at JLS Consulting.

This is at least the second time Obituary 747 was written. Aircraft orders peaked at 122 in 1990 and have been on the decline ever since. The last passenger 747 was delivered to Korean Air in 2017. In 2020, Qantas and Virgin made their last passenger flights on the aircraft, while British Airways announced it was phasing out the model, four years earlier than expected. There are still 385 747s in service, mostly for cargo companies, and 122 in storage, according to aviation data analysts group Cirium. The company predicts that there will still be about 100 747s in service in 2040.

“The fall of the Boeing 747 was a gradual process,” says Brendan Sobie, founder of Singapore-based consultancy Sobie Aviation.

The Boeing 747’s early appeal was partly due to its sheer size. In the 1950s and 1960s, most aircraft were narrow-body, narrow-body aircraft that could only carry a relatively small number of passengers. Four Boeing 747 engines meant that the size of the aircraft itself could be much larger, and with it more seating and kitchen space. “At first, airlines were worried about how they could sell all those extra seats on the plane,” says Strickland. “But it gave them the ability to sell more competitively and more redundantly at the bottom of the range and also offer incredible service at the top of the range.

“It’s just a big plane,” says Robert Mann, aviation analyst for RW Mann & Company in New York. “It’s not just bulky. It’s like a concert hall on wings. It’s a luxurious experience.”

This scale was accompanied by awe, which in a competitive industry where passengers increasingly had a choice of airlines was an important selling point. “Whether it was operated by Japan Airlines or Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France or a government organization, it showed strength,” says Mann. “It was an aircraft that was a huge projection of power. People stood in amazement.

Aircraft engines that produce 45,000 pounds of thrust, represents a significant improvement over the previous generation of aircraft. But soon they were supplanted by new technologies. Later engines would produce up to 100,000 or 120,000 pounds of thrust, meaning the planes only needed two engines instead of four like the 747. “And you needed less fuel to do the same job as a Boeing.” 747,” says Mann.

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