Passenger days numbered
Boeing looks to cargo market to keep 747s flying.
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.
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.