The last Boeing 747 trundled out of the factory and was handed over to its new operators. It’s the end of an era. And it’s not.
Some of the big birds will fly well past 2030. That means the classic plane will rack up more than 60 years in commercial operations.
Still, production has ended after 55 years. The 747 was known for comfort, elegance, and service, all things that seem to have departed from the airline industry.
As Boeing put it at the delivery and farewell, ”the ‘Queen of the Skies’ revolutionized air travel as the world’s first twin-aisle airplane and enabled more people to fly farther, faster and more affordably than ever before.”
Since production began in 1967, more than one hundred customers have purchased 1,574 aircraft, logging more than 118 million flight hours. FedEx, UPS, and Atlas Air, which took delivery of the last aircraft, all operate multiple 747 cargo craft.
At this point, it’s easier to fly on a 747 if you’re a package rather than a person. Today cargo is king, with just 44 passenger 747s still flying.
In 2020, UPS noted, “The 747-8 is an incredibly capable aircraft, with capacity unmatched by any other freighter in production. With a maximum payload of 307,000 lbs, we use them on long, high-volume routes, connecting Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.”
The numbers are impressive, but the 747 did not just capture the imagination with its size and strength. It also captured the heart with graceful lines that emphasized the romance of air travel.
The 747 is not flying away yet, but your chances of experiencing it in flight are winging away. Lufthansa is currently the largest operator with 25. Airlines like Qantas and Virgin Atlantic parked their planes during COVID, then scrapped them for more efficient aircraft.
But the memories are many, whether you’ve flown on the great plane or just seen images in the movies (the 747 has been in over 650 films), TV, or the Web. Perhaps you have an image of the plane in your wallet as well as your heart. Delta Airlines launched a credit card made of melted-down 747 last year.
It’s easy to wax melancholy as the big plane, with its distinct but graceful second deck hump, leaves the stage. For me, sitting in upper-deck business class comfort on a flight from Los Angeles to Munich, staring at the dark sky above was as close as I’ll get to space.
But “nostalgia is just a mild form of depression,” as former Yippie Abbie Hoffman put it. Better to celebrate the plane’s prodigious achievements, rather mourn its departure. The plane’s Bunyanesque legend is even more impressive than its specifications.
For many years, passenger 747s offered affordable airfares for hordes of passengers. Sometimes they even helped airlines in their hunt for the elusive holy grail, profits.
Airlines operating 747s typically flew to large hub cities, like London, Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Paris. But today’s smaller, more efficient aircraft can instead fly point-to-point.
The smaller planes are easier to fill than a jumbo jet, and passengers can now take long flights to smaller cities without changing planes. The expanded range and efficiency of twin-jet aircraft like the Airbus A350 make it even possible to fly nonstop from New York to Singapore, a 9500-mile ride.
But while technology marches on, the Boeing 747 remains a remarkable aviation achievement, with a long list of firsts.
· At 63 feet and 6 inches, the 747-8 Intercontinetal’s tail is as tall as an average 6 story city apartment building.
· Boeing had to build a special plant to manufacture the 231-foot long plane with its 224 foot wingspan. Now Boeing’s Everett (WA) Plant is the world’s largest building by volume.
· The 747 was designed in conjunction with a powerful Boeing customer, Pan Am, that wanted a plane two and a half the size of the 707 to reduce per seat travel costs up to 30%. The resulting 747 was the first airliner with twin aisles, now common on widebody aircraft.
· Designers added the distinctive “hump” so the plane’s nose could hinge for cargo while the cockpit stayed put. The hump “grew” as new models added more “upper class” seating.
· The 747 holds the record for total number of passengers on an airplane. The 747 could typically carry between 416 and 524 passengers. But 1991, an El Al 747 took off from Addis Ababa with an incredible 1,086 passengers during Operation Solomon, the emergency evacuation of Ethiopian Jews. Even more amazing, when it landed in Jerusalem, there were 1,089 passengers—three babies were born during the flight.
· American Airline’s early 747s had a piano (actually an electric organ due to tuning issues) on board. Pan Am’s upper deck lounges had tables for up to four, for your party to dine or to meet and chat with others. Qantas had a Captain Cook lounge with little tables to sit and drink, Other 747s were configured with a lounge and dining areas where the seats could convert to sleepers, (Singapore Airlines) or a bright red sectional ‘conversation pit’ (Air India.)
· Iron Maiden had their own custom-painted 747, taking them around the world for the Book of Souls tour. Other 747s have been converted into flying palaces, like this one with both board rooms and bedrooms.
· Most writers focus on the elegance of First Class and Business Class service aboard the graceful giant. But two generations of backpackers got to explore Europe and Asia, often on budget carriers like Tower Air or Norwegian. Other carriers and charters carried European and Asian travelers to North America and around the world.
· As of December 2022 over 300 cargo 747s were still flying. That’s more than the 254 Airbus A380s ever built. One reason the A380 superjumbo never replaced the 747 was its lack of a freighter version. And sadly, since the destruction of the only Antonov A-225 in the Russo-Ukraine conflict, the 747 is probably the world’s largest air freighter.
The passenger version of the 747 has been dropped by most airlines, including American, Delta, United, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas. Yet the plane has outlived many of the 100 airlines that flew it, like Pan Am, TWA, Northwest Orient, Flying Tigers, Eastern Airlines, Tower Air, and more.
The Queen of the Skies changed aviation. As she continues to work behind the scenes, a new generation of planes will power travel into the future.
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