The Boeing 747 has been a revolutionising aircraft for the aviation industry, and long popular with airlines and passengers. Whilst it is still flying, it is undoubtedly on the decline with the last freighter aircraft now built and delivered. This article takes a look at the past 50 years of the 747, and how it changed aviation before its eventual decline.
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Launching a “jumbo” aircraft
Size was the motivation for the Boeing 747. Boeing had already seen success with the 707, 727 and twin-engine 737, and once again responded to new markets and customer desires. Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) had been a major operator of the Boeing 707 and requested a new aircraft around two and a half times the size. With a commitment for 25 aircraft from the outset, Pan Am and Boeing worked closely together on the development of the aircraft – an interaction unmatched by any major aircraft development since.
Development of the 747 began in 1966, with the first aircraft flying in February 1969. The aircraft introduced many new design features. Most obvious was the humped upper deck. This came from an earlier design that Boeing had unsuccessfully proposed for a US military transport aircraft. Interestingly, this iconic short deck was originally intended to be full-length, but Boeing could not make it work under safety and evacuation regulations at the time.
Its four engines were not so unusual at the time. ETOPS was yet to open up oceanic flying to twin-engine aircraft. The 707 that preceded it was a quad jet too, and the focus on efficiency and emissions that we see today was far from the top priority.
Its capacity, of course, was what set it apart – and continued to do so until the launch of the Airbus A380 over 35 years later. The initial version offered a typical three-class capacity of 366 (and an exit limit of 440). This increased to 416 (and a limit of 660) by the time of the 747-400. This was vastly more than any other aircraft available at that time. It changed the economics of flying forever, with lower costs per seat and the space for experimentation with new classes of service.
Evolving through several variants
The first variant was the 747-100. It entered service in January 1970 with Pan Am. Only 205 aircraft were delivered, with shortcomings addressed by the 747-200 in 1971. With higher-powered engines, the range and payload were increased and almost 400 of this variant were sold.
The 747-300 was another major upgrade, with a stretched upper deck. It launched in 1982. Only 81 aircraft were delivered – but this was not due to any lack of popularity. Quite the opposite, as the growing interest in the 747 led to the quick development of the next variant, the 747-400. This entered service in 1989 with Northwest Airlines. Major changes included a two-person cockpit, additional fuel tanks, and aerodynamic modifications. It has been a great success, with almost 700 aircraft delivered right up to 2009.
The final variant, the 747-8, launched in 2010 and is the largest of the series. It is just over five metres longer than the 747-400 and is currently the longest commercial jet in service (Boeing’s new 777X beats it, however). It incorporates many of the design and technical features of the Boeing 787 (and its new engines) and was launched with both a passenger and cargo version to build on the 747-400s cargo popularity. The cargo version has ended up more popular, with only 48 passenger aircraft and 107 cargo aircraft ordered.
Luxuries of the 747
The 747 is noted for several things. Firstly, it brought new opportunities for mass travel, and lower prices. Combined with deregulation of air fares in the US from the late 1970, this changed airline pricing and economics significantly.
The other change it introduced was simply more space. In many ways, it offered a chance to return to some of the luxuries seen in the earliest decades of aviation, with aircraft such as the Clipper flying boats. Availability of differentiated cabins expanded, with more differences between first and economy class from the outset and later the development of a new business class cabin.
Many airlines chose to use the extra space for first class luxuries too. Lounges and restaurants (often utilising the upper deck) were offered by airlines including Qantas (with the popular Captain Cook upper deck lounge on the 747-200), Pan Am, American Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Japan Airlines.
The demise of the Boeing 747
The final 747-8 aircraft (the last orders delivered were all cargo versions) were delivered to Atlas Air in October 2022. This brought to an end over 50 years of Boeing 747 production and delivery from Boeing.
Far from being a failure or ending unexpectedly, this marked a natural end for the 747. Attention has been moving away from the highest-capacity aircraft (as seen with the Airbus A380). Its fuel-hungry four engines are even more unpopular in an age of green focus and carbon zero industry commitments. The 747-8 was a great way to extend the life of the 747 with newly available technology, but it has been clear for some time the series would struggle to keep going.
Boeing ‘s new development to replace the 747, the 777X, shows well the change in industry demand. It takes capacity down slightly (the largest 777-9 will offer a typical capacity of up to 426) but does this with two engines and a major focus on efficiency.
The Boeing 747 is not going anywhere soon, however. With the latest 747-8 aircraft still brand new, we will no doubt see it in the skies for years to come. The iconic 747-400 will become increasingly rare, of course. As of late 2022, it remains in very limited passenger use – with airlines including Lufthansa, Air China, and Iranian airline Mahan Air. The 747-8 flies with Air China, Korean Airlines, and Lufthansa. Many airlines operate cargo versions of both aircraft.
The Boeing 747 has been a highly successful aircraft for Boeing – and made notable changes to the aviation industry. Just as it has with the 737 series, Boeing has made continual changes and upgrades to keep the 747 on sale for decades. It remains in use, but the focus is well set now on more efficient twin-engine aircraft.
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