Retiring the Boeing 747

Boeing 747

Never mind that the Federal Aviation Administration just demanded Boeing fix a software glitch in the 747 that could cause problems related to landing. There are other issues with the 40-year-old jumbo 747.

Many of the 1,400 747s built are being retired and few airlines are buying new 747s, whose greedy four engines guzzle jet fuel. That old, complicated story.

Yesterday, Japan’s All Nippon Airways retired its antiquated 747 passenger fleet. Singapore and Japan airlines have already jettisoned 747 fleets.

Tempted by other horizons , other airlines are doing the same. Replacing the 747 are newer, two-engine planes, like the 787 Dreamliner or Airbus’ A350, that make direct routes profitable without always flying hub to hub.

But what a history for the extraordinary 747. In its heydays, the 1970s, it massively improved range and fuel efficiency while pushing airfares down and showcasing a golden age in air travel.

Remember how airlines would christen 747s with a name like a ship? Qantas, for example, took first delivery of its 747s in September 1971, naming the first one the “City of Canberra.” (All Qantas 747s were named after Australian cities until 2008.)

Yes, the 747 was a game changer for air travel. Not only did it have four engines, a second floor and carry up to 550 passengers (making it possible to fly people en masse at a profit), but it was glamorous, too. (In 1974, Qantas set a world record for carrying the most passengers while evacuating 673 people on a 747 flight from Darwin during a cyclone.) There was nothing like the 747.

Remember Pan American World Airways? It was a premium flying experience in the 1970s. First-class cabins looked like fine hotel lobbies, including a spiral staircase to the upper deck. And room to stand at a bar.

Even more importantly, the 747 made international travel mainstream. And you could play at the edges. For example, the 747 was critical to Qantas’ success. At one time they were the only 747-only airline in the world. Today they operate 15 747s, mostly on international routes.

But an all-747 fleet today is a bad thing. Qantas is replacing them with smaller Airbus A330s.

Boeing has cut production to only one and a half new 747s per month.

One aviation consultant expects Boeing to keep producing 747s just long enough to replace Air Force One.

The two presidential 747s are more than 25 years old. The Air Force wants a four-engine aircraft to replace them. The only other current alternative is Airbus’ A380.

The Tarmac’s View:  Have smaller jets become a worldwide business model? They’re easier for airlines to fill and fly profitably on a variety of routes. Open-sky rules have played into this by increasing international competition from an expanding range of carriers, often anarchic and flying leased, new aircraft while paying minimum wages. Making it so easy to adapt to travellers’ changing habits.

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Comments (Showing 5 of 5)

  • BearX220 at 6:36pm April 02, 2014

    Referring to the “40-year-old 747” is as misleading as a reference to the “50-year-old 737.” The airframe has evolved dramatically since its launch, through several discrete editions, and virtually all 747s remaining in passenger service today were built in the 1990s. That doesn’t make them ancient by any means, but they are being hastened into retirement by changing airline business models, which deemphasize superhubs like JFK in favor of point-to-point longhauls, and the new generation of smaller longhaul twins built to serve those routes.

  • FastSRT8 at 4:52am April 03, 2014

    This will be a sad ending to what will always be the Queen of the sky for me. Born in the 70’s, I recall the 747 as the epitome of flight.

    Even today, if an airline uses the 747 for a route I am taking, I will select it as the aircraft of choice.

    It’s just so smooth!

    I will miss her tremendously if/when she is retired.

    Doesn’t Lufthansa fly the new series 8??!

  • badatz at 7:02am April 03, 2014

    True it is a 40 year old plane but most 747’s flying today are 747-400 not the 100 or 200 of yesteryear. These are no way comparable to the old planes, all the avionics and even the hump is different.

    There are still airlines out there who need them to fly over 400 people hub to hub

    And by the way the record for most people in a 747 is by ELAL in 1991 on a rescue flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv—1122 people including 3 babies who were born inflight

  • HawaiiFlyerDC8 at 3:44pm April 03, 2014

    Wonderful looking plane, and there was nothing like travelling in one when they were introduced, even in economy.

  • go_around at 5:03pm April 03, 2014

    Why is the A340 not also an option for AF1?

    Anyway, I love the 747. Just managed a trip in a combi, what a machine – not many kicking around now.

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