Pas­sen­ger days num­bered

Boe­ing looks to cargo mar­ket to keep 747s fly­ing.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - SA­MAN­THA MASUNAG

LOS ANGELES — The wide-bod­ied Boe­ing 747 was once known as the queen of the skies, an in­stantly rec­og­niz­able be­he­moth revered for its lux­ury and spa­cious­ness.

As time passed, how­ever, the orig­i­nal jumbo jet was out­stripped by more ef­fi­cient twin-en­gine planes.

Now the 747’s days as a pas­sen­ger plane are num­bered. Delta and United — the last two U.S. air­lines that fly 747s — have said they will re­tire those planes from their fleet by the end of the year, 48 years after the jet first took flight.

To­day, Boe­ing Co. pro­duces just six 747s a year. The Chicago-based aero­space gi­ant says it is eye­ing the cargo mar­ket for new cus­tomers.

“The 747 was a fab­u­lous air­plane,” said Scott Hamil­ton, founder of avi­a­tion con­sult­ing firm Lee­ham Co. LLC. “But like any tech­nol­ogy, it moves on.”

At the time, the big jet rep­re­sented a spec­tac­u­lar gam­ble for Boe­ing.

Up un­til the 747’s de­but, fly­ing was a cramped ex­pe­ri­ence in nar­row-body planes. When the plane rolled off an assem­bly line in the late 1960s, it was al­ready larger and had longer range than later “air­bus” air­craft, such as the McDon­nell Dou­glas DC-10 and Lock­heed L-1011.

As­pir­ing 747 pilots were spe­cially trained to taxi the large air­craft by rid­ing in a mock-up of the plane’s flight deck boosted on three-story-tall stilts in a mov­ing truck. Pilots ma­neu­vered the “sim­u­la­tor” by ra­dio­ing di­rec­tions down to the truck driver.

Boe­ing poured fi­nan­cial re­sources into the 747’s devel­op­ment, which al­most bankrupted the com­pany as cost over­runs were ex­ac­er­bated by a re­ces­sion that broke just as the plane made its de­but, said Suresh Kotha, pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton’s Fos­ter School of Busi­ness.

The com­pany had to cut deals with sup­pli­ers to pro­duce parts on their own dime. Pro­duc­tion be­gan while the mas­sive Everett, Wash., assem­bly plant was still un-

● der con­struc­tion; the plant’s con­struc­tion alone cost $200 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the book Boe­ing 747: A His­tory.

Ex­pected or­ders dis­ap­peared, and air­lines that did buy the plane opted to in­stall lounges in the 747’s fa­mous hump rather than fill the plane to its 400-seat ca­pac­ity. Amer­i­can Air­lines even placed a pi­ano bar near the back of its planes.

“It had un­par­al­leled spa­cious­ness,” Hamil­ton said. “The fliers of to­day are used to step­ping on a 747 or 777 that has wide bod­ies. Back then, you’d step onto the air­plane and go, ‘Wow.’”

In 2005, Boe­ing ri­val Air­bus un­veiled its own jumbo jet, the 555-seat A380. Boe­ing tried to counter the move by an­nounc­ing plans for up­dated ver­sions of the 747, but air­lines weren’t in­ter­ested in what they saw as an out­dated plane.

Boe­ing shifted its strat­egy and be­gan pro­mot­ing a fu­ture of more point-to-point travel to smaller air­ports, ver­sus the old hub-and-spoke sys­tem that max­i­mized huge planes, Kotha said.

More im­por­tant, tech­nol­ogy shifted to fa­vor more fuel-ef­fi­cient jets. Lighter en­gines were de­vel­oped us­ing more ti­ta­nium and ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing more thrust, with more re­li­able tur­bine blades.

Twin-en­gine planes were even­tu­ally cer­ti­fied to fly over the ocean. Planes such as the Boe­ing 777 and 787, and Air­bus A330 and 350, com­bined the perks of a wide body with greater fu­el­ef­fi­ciency. A typ­i­cal 290-seat Boe­ing 787-9 would use about 18,400 gal­lons of fuel to fly from Los Angeles In­ter­na­tional Air­port to Lon­don’s Heathrow Air­port, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis from Lee­ham Co. A 405-seat 747-8 pas­sen­ger plane mak­ing the same trip would use about 33,000 gal­lons.

Now Air­bus is fac­ing a sim­i­lar sales cliff with its mas­sive A380.

The com­pany recorded no net or­ders last year and is work­ing through a dwin­dling back­log of or­ders.

Boe­ing, mean­while, is hop­ing to squeeze out some last years from the 747 as a cargo plane.

In Oc­to­ber, UPS or­dered 14 new 747-8 cargo jets for its air ship­ping ser­vice, with an op­tion to pur­chase an ad­di­tional 14.

Boe­ing spokesman Jes­sica Kowal said the UPS or­der in­di­cates that cus­tomers still see value in the 747 for its car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity and its hinged nose door for ac­com­mo­dat­ing larger loads.

“We con­tinue build­ing 7478s, and there are no plans to dis­con­tinue that work,” she said in a state­ment. “While the pre­vi­ous eco­nomic down­turn slowed the mar­ket, we are work­ing with cus­tomers across the globe and ex­pect ac­tiv­ity to in­crease to match growth of the cargo mar­ket.”

An­a­lysts say the in­ter­na­tional air cargo mar­ket has grown, es­pe­cially with the rise of e-com­merce. But un­less Boe­ing is able to se­cure ad­di­tional or­ders beyond that of UPS, the plane could be out of pro­duc­tion, the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton’s Kotha said.

Cour­tesy of Boe­ing Co.

A Lux­em­bourg-bound 747-8 Freighter takes off from Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port in this un­dated photo. The last two U.S. air­lines that use 747s to carry pas­sen­gers have said they will re­tire the planes by the end of the year.

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