Sunday, February 05, 2023

Boeing delivers the final 747

I've been following the gradual demise of four-engined commercial aircraft on this blog, so I knew this news was coming. Still, it's a bit sad:

More than half a century since the original jumbo jet ushered in a glamorous new jet age, helping bring affordable air travel to millions of passengers, the last-ever Boeing 747 was delivered on Tuesday, marking the start of the final chapter for the much-loved airplane.

In a ceremony that was broadcast live online, the aircraft was handed over to its new owner, US air cargo operator Atlas Air, at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington.

In a dramatic opening of the hangar’s sliding doors, Atlas Air’s new plane was revealed behind flags bearing the liveries of every carrier that’s ever taken delivery of a 747. The company has 56 of the aircraft in its fleet.

Going back to the iconic aircraft's first delivery in early 1969, a total of 1,574 "Jumbo Jets" have come off Boeing's assembly line in Everett, Washington. The last 747 intended for passenger service was delivered to Korean Air in 2017; deliveries for freight carriers continued for a few additional years, culminating in this final delivery to Atlas Air.

While the final 747 won’t be carrying paying passengers, its delivery is another milestone for the distinctive double-decker “Queen of the Skies,” which revolutionized intercontinental travel while also appearing in James Bond films and even giving piggyback rides to the Space Shuttle.

With the last passenger 747 having entered service more than five years ago, the end of the 747’s enduring career now moves even closer, hastened by airlines switching their preferences to smaller and more economical aircraft.

Sine entering production in 1968, the 747 and its many variants (including the shorter, longer-range 747SP) managed to outlast its three- and four-engined widebody rivals, including the Lockheed L-1011 (manufactured from 1968 through 1984), the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11 (1970-2000), the Airbus A340 (1991-2012), and its only double-decker competitor, the Airbus A380 (2003-2021):
It was the introduction of the European double-decker plane in the early 2000s that prompted Boeing to announce, in 2005, one last version of the 747 design that by that time was already starting to show its age.

The B747-8I (or B747-8 Intercontinental), as this last variant of the venerable jumbo jet is called, proved to be a swan song for large four-engined airliners.

Even though the A380 is currently enjoying a revival, with airlines rushing to bring stored aircraft back to service in response to the post-Covid air traffic recovery, these giants of the skies struggle to compete with the operational flexibility and fuel economies of smaller twin-engined jets.

As of December 2022, there are only 44 passenger versions of the 747 still in service, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. That total is down from more than 130 in service as passenger jets at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crippled demand for air travel, especially on international routes on which the 747 and other widebody jets were primarily used. Most of those passenger versions of the jets were grounded during the early months of the pandemic and never returned to service.

Lufthansa remains the largest operator of the passenger version of the B747-8, with 19 in its current fleet and potential commitments to keep the jumbo flying passengers for years, possibly decades, to come.
Indeed, even though the newest 747s, including this final freighter, will likely be flying for decades, the 747 is already obsolete. Two-engined aircraft might not be as iconic or as interesting as the Jumbo Jet, but they are significantly more fuel efficient, and the evolution of ETOPS regulations means that twin-engined aircraft can fly on just about any long-haul route in the world. While some 747s, A340s and A380s are currently being reactivated to handle post-COVID premium-seat demand, routes once flown by these four-engined aircraft will be increasingly turned over to twin-engined widebodies such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.

I flew on a 787 to Europe and back last November. It was perfectly fine. But it just wasn't as "cool" as flying a 747.

 NPR and CBS News and The Points Guy have more on the 747's final delivery. Simple Flying considers how the 747 changed aviation forever and lists the commercial routes still using the aircraft (including Houston-Frankfurt on Lufthansa later this year). Boeing workers reflect on the 747 to The Seattle Times.

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