The Queen of the skies has had a long and glorious production cycle spanning more than half a century, but that is set to end as the manufacturer delivers the last three aircraft in just a few months to Atlas Air.
Boeing has produced several versions of the jumbo over the course of its life cycle, with the greatest of those being the 747-8 variant. The 747-8 is available as freighter and a people carrier dubbed “Intercontinental”. Boeing initially forecasted demand of around 300 airframes for this type, but has struggled to get orders.
To date, 48 passenger 747-8I aircraft have been delivered, while 102 examples of the 747-8F have been delivered to customers. Even though the passenger variant has been out of production for some time now, demand for the freighter kept the production line running. Two former Transaero 747-8s are currently being converted into military variants for the Pentagon to serve as Air Force One.
The start of the 747 jumbo demise began when Airbus started producing the A380. The European jumbo came as a major blow to Boeing as several airlines that were considering adding more 747’s to their fleet, like British Airways and Emirates, ended up opting for the A380 instead.
With the turn of the century, a new trend emerged as technology progressed and twin-engine aircraft became more capable. Certain narrow-body aircraft like Airbus’ A321XLR have enough range to serve transatlantic routes without stopovers on long-haul and medium-demand routes. On the freighter side, a wide-body twin-engine Boeing 777-8F is currently being developed, which boasts virtually the same capacity of a 747-400F while burning less fuel.
The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation by suppressing passenger numbers for months on end. During the pandemic’s peak, several airlines placed their 747’s and A380’s in storage. Although airlines are reluctant to bring back quads, some of the relatively newer Airbus A380’s have been brought back into service, but most 747’s have not.
The real problem is that the need for large jumbo jets doesn’t really exist anymore, and industry experts question if that need will ever return as better alternatives are emerging. Increased passenger capacity and extended range are the only two characteristics that made jumbo jets desirable, including the A380. Now that passenger numbers are low, airlines are forced to deploy aircraft on long-haul routes even with low occupancy rates.
Not good for business.
Air China, Lufthansa, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, Mahan Air and Rossiya.
There are 443 Boeing 747 aircraft in active airline service, comprising 6 747-100s, 18 747-200s, 4 747-300s, 265 747-400s, and 150 747-8s.
The Boeing 747 came about after Pan Am requested an airliner two-and-a-half times the size of its existing 707, with the first 747 flying on February 9th, 1969.
Beginning with its entry into service as a passenger variant with Pan Am in 1970, the first 747 opened the door to international travel for countless people around the world. Later, 747s were modified to ferry NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle fleet. Modified 747s were used to carry enormous airplane parts from overseas to final assembly at Boeing factories. A modified long-range 747SP variant served NASA as an in-flight observatory.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the first delivery of a wide-body freighter, the 747-200, to Lufthansa on March 10, 1972, featuring the nose door which allowed loading of oversized objects. Currently, 90 percent of the world’s freighter capacity belongs to Boeing freighters.
The 747 introduced a number of firsts which we all now take for granted.
- First true wide-body airliner.
- First double-decker ‘Jet’ airliner.
- First airliner to fly with high-bypass turbofan engines.
- First airliner to carry over 500 passengers.
- First airliner to carry over 1000 passengers. In 1991, a record-breaking 1,087 passengers were flown in a 747 during a covert operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. A 747-400 typically carries between 416 and 524 passengers.
- First aircraft to feature nine-abreast seats: a triple, a quad, and a double row.
- First with ten-abreast seating.
- First to have enclosed pivoting overhead stowage bins.
- First to have multiplex system with attendant call and reading light activation.
- First for audio for the movies that you listened to, with pneumatic tubes that plugged into the armrest.
Over the past five decades, Boeing has produced and delivered a grand total of 1 569 747s.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to say there will never be another airplane quite like the Queen of the Skies.