What Happened To The Boeing 747?
When you see the 747 takeoff or land, it's almost transfixing because the plane itself is so beautifully designed. Boeing called her the super jet, the press called her jumbo. It makes the best landing of any airplane. And you are in awe that somebody even dreamt that this could fly. Since its first commercial flight in 1970, Boeing's 747 jumbo jet has flown over 3.5 billion passengers. Its development back in the 1960s was measured in billions of dollars.
It was a pretty expensive airplane to develop at its time. We're building a whole new class of airplane, the biggest airplane in the world. It's one of the most recognizable planes to take to the skies with its iconic hump four engines, extensive landing gear and sheer size. The 747-8 tail height is equivalent to a six story building. It has a wingspan as wide as two 737-700s lined up nose to tail.
It can travel 7,790 nautical miles, carry over 450 passengers with a takeoff weight of nearly £1 million. The 747 ushered in more affordable long haul air travel by increasing capacity and lowering ticket costs. It quickly became known as the queen of the skies and was the first plane to have two aisles and overhead bins. Boeing was already on the map when the 747 came out, but what the 747 did for Boeing was inject the company with a little bit more glamor, a little bit more sexiness. The 747 was always intended to have dual roles.
It was designed from the beginning to carry both passengers and cargo. The flight deck was put on top of the plane so that the nose would open for easier loading. This gave the 747 its upper deck. Boeing produced the 747 for the last 55 years, during which a total of 1,574 airplanes were built for over 100 plus customers.
The list price for a 747-8 in 2022 was over $400 million. But over the last few decades, airlines have looked for more ways to cut costs and to make airplanes as efficient as possible. Airlines even coming out of the pandemic, are trying to save as much money as they can.
So they are looking for ways to have planes that are the most efficient possible. And right now, those are two engine jets. The last 747 just rolled out of its Everett, Washington, factory. It will go to Atlas Air for cargo deliveries.
CNBC takes a look at how the 747 changed aviation and what the future looks like for Boeing's future aircraft. It was the beginning of the jet age. In the 1950s, Boeing introduced the 707 America's first jet airliner.
Jet engines were safer, cheaper and faster than piston engines. The number of people flying quadrupled between 1955 and 1972 as it became faster, more accessible and financially possible. Pan American World Airways or Pan Am was one of the biggest carriers at the time. So Pan American came to Boeing and said, we need an airplane twice the size of the 707. The head of Pan American Airways Juanne Tripp said to
Bill Allen, the CEO of Boeing. If you build that airplane, I'll buy it. And Bill Allen turned to one trip, said, if you buy it, I'll build it. And that's how the 747 got started. In 1966, Pan Am put in an order for 25, new 747s. One of the original design ideas for the 747 really was going along with what Pan American wanted, and that was building a double decker.
Building a plane twice the size of its predecessor had a significant amount of challenges. The first iterations of the design were entirely double decker, but that made it difficult to evacuate potentially 500 passengers safely and in a timely manner. And this moment of innovation came in, and that was instead of making a double decker, why don't we make a wider airplane? Why don't we make a twin aisle go 20 feet wide. And so the twin aisle, the widebody jet was born. Even though the design wasn't a full double decker, it was still twice the size of the 707 and required new innovations.
What made it possible to make this giant jet was a revolution in engine technology. These new engines, especially compared to the turbojet engines, that they were very efficient. The 747 wasn't Boeing's biggest project at the time. It was also working on the 2707 supersonic transport or SST. What's interesting about the 747 when it was first introduced is airlines expected it to be an interim aircraft that they would use between their first generation of jets and the coming wave of supersonic planes that were expected to enter service later in the 1970s.
So the designers of the 747, they understood this, that at some point in the future, the 747s would be converted into freighters. And so they purposely set out to make the 747 the perfect freighter. The SST program lost government funding and the prototypes were never finished. Well, obviously the supersonic era didn't happen quite the way we expected.
And so frankly, I think that led to a much longer life and much greater success for the 747. Once they finalized the specs for the plane. How are airports going to handle this plane that is more than twice as large with a wingspan, more than twice the width of previous aircraft and an airplane that is much heavier.
So that led to how Boeing designed the landing gear. It has 18 wheels and that's designed to spread out the weight of the plane so that it could use existing runways. But some airports had to widen their runways and taxiways. They built new terminals to handle this. They had to invest in new baggage handling systems.
In fact, the plane was so big, Boeing had to build a plant around it during its construction in Everett, Washington. Today, that building is the biggest in the world by volume. And where Boeing builds its other widebodies. These costs, along with the SST project and the development of its other new jet, the 737 created a significant financial strain on the company. One of the biggest challenges for Boeing, how do they fund building it? Boeing bet the house on the 747. There were people who said literally that this airplane would not fly. There were also people who said financially this airplane would not fly.
It was a tremendous risk. That became one of the big issues in those days that the money to build this airplane that Boeing had to negotiate with, with creditors constantly to keep this program going, to keep the company going. But that didn't stop Boeing.
Joe Sutter, who is known as the father of the 747, led the design team and they, along with other Boeing employees, were nicknamed The Incredibles for building the 747 in just 29 months. When the first 747 rolled out of the factory. It was a huge event. All of the airlines who placed an order sent flight attendants to represent them, and each company's logo was included on the fuselage. In 1970, Boeing delivered 93 total 747 aircraft with over 60 passenger versions.
Pan Am will bring you the world's first 747. Pan Am operated the first commercial flight in 1970. When it arrived in London, crowds of spectators greeted the arrival. Because the public was so entranced with the 747. All of the major airlines had to have this airplane as their flagship.
Its jumbo size was something passengers, pilots and flight attendants had to get used to. My first introduction to the 747 was as a flight attendant in 1972. It was huge. All of a sudden, the biggest airplane up until the end was a 707 that needed
five or six flight attendants. The 747 needed 14, and it had five different sections and each section was a different size. It was chaos at the beginning. So many airlines used the upper deck level of their first versions of the 747 as lounges for their first class passengers. Some airlines had lounges in coach, and American Airlines even had a piano bar in coach on its 747 for short time.
Very extravagant. Very luxurious. We had fresh flowers in crystal vases. Each meal had a special wine that was paired with it and had to learn how to properly open champagne. The first ever 747 prototype is still on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. This is the upper deck experience. This was the interior that Boeing used to show the airlines the possibility of what that first class, that premier experience, that premier flying experience could be.
Passengers could come up the spiral staircase and have a moment in the lounge. It was the favorite airplane of the pilots. Captain Lynn Rippelmeyer would eventually become the first woman to pilot a 747 and the first woman to captain a 747 transatlantic flight. She got her start flying cargo for Seaboard World Airlines. They had professional engineers. So if you got hired as a pilot, you immediately went to the first officer seat.
So this very unique set of circumstances happened at the exact right time for me to get hired by Seaboard World. And as a 747 first officer and become the first woman to fly a 747. I went to work for PeoplExpress first as a 737 first officer upgraded with any gear to captain again, which is almost unheard of. And then we got 747s. So I became a 747 captain at People Express in 1984.
I had so much confidence in that plane. It flies beautifully, I think, why many pilots like it is. It makes the best landing of any airplane.
The plane was designed for long haul flights, making international travel more accessible and affordable. It only went to what we would consider to be important cities, major markets, world capitals. And having the 747 serve your airport was a badge of honor. What was also interesting is airlines viewed the 747 as legitimizing them. So a lot of airlines ordered the 747 when it was first introduced, even though probably they shouldn't have. It also helped transform the air cargo market.
It wasn't long that the 747 with its capacity to be a great freighter, but that freighter version came out and that was in the early seventies with Lufthansa. And this is really where the airplane came into its own. Airlines all over the world have flown the 747. It really runs the gamut from United Airlines to Delta Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways, Qantas. It was really a plane that flew all over the world. Over the next few decades.
The 747 continued to evolve with newer, improved versions. It also served other purposes like government transport, including Air Force One. In 1977, Boeing delivered a modified 747 to NASA to use to ferry the space shuttle from its landing spot in California back to Cape Canaveral in Florida. In 1988, the 747-400 was introduced. This version had more efficient engines, longer range and a modernized cockpit.
It was the company's best selling version. Overall, the 747 safety record has been good. That's not to say it's been perfect.
Some of these problems, though, are more airline related in terms of their maintenance than the design of the airplane. But the 747 has been involved with some very tragic events. Two of the most visible were the bombing of Pan Am 103, a flight from London to New York and the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, both of which were 747. But the 747 was a well designed aircraft.
It actually is probably the safest airplane in the air because of so many redundancies. The more engines you have, the more backups you have to all the systems, because each engine provides the hydraulic power, the electrics, the pneumatics, the air conditioning, everything that the airplane needs comes from an engine. And when you have four of them, you've got three backups. That airplane can fly on one engine. It's not going to keep altitude. You're going to want to be pretty close to a runway, but everything will still be working that you need to get the airplane safely back down on the ground.
Boeing saw a rise in deliveries through the 1990s before its decline. The 747 was one of the most geographically widely ordered airplane in the world for a plane of its size. It helped spur the development of the airline hub and spoke route networks that we now take for granted. But the 747 was not an airplane designed to serve shorter routes. And so as a result, that limited the appeal of the
747 and it also limited the usefulness of the 747. Fares, routes and service were regulated by the federal government until the Airline Deregulation Act was enacted in 1978. This created more competition among the airlines and brought fair prices down. It also created dozens of new airlines and the expansions of smaller ones. With these large planes, they would funnel large numbers of passengers and then funnel them through large hubs. But what passengers want now is to fly nonstop to their destinations. And it turns out that the more fuel efficient planes, the leaner planes are able to do that.
And that's something that has essentially killed both superjumbo jets. With four engines, of course, you're going to use more fuel than you than you are with three or two. So they were finding ways to fly an airplane much cheaper and more efficiently.
And the 74 didn't cut it. It's not because people don't like it certainly isn't because pilots don't like it. In the eighties, airlines started to do away with the luxurious lounges and replaced it with seats for increased revenue. Airlines also pack a lot more seats onto planes than they used to. That is the idea. They want to get as many people into coach as possible. In 1990, Boeing 747ss made up 28% of the world's passenger widebody fleet.
That's down to just 2% in 2022. And despite the rise in air freight during the pandemic in 2022, the 747 made up just 21% of the world's widebody cargo fleet, down from 71% in 1990. In fact, Pan Am clung to that plane far too long, and it's partially responsible for the airline's demise. In 1991, Pan Am ended operations. So from the mid 1980s into the 2000s, you saw fewer and fewer airlines flying 747. Those that had them generally reduce the number of 747s in their fleet.
Despite all these signs that airlines were moving away from four engine aircraft, Airbus, Boeing's main competitor, launched its superjumbo, the A380, in 2007. The company spent billions on developing it and overtook the 747 as the world's largest commercial plane. It is a full double decker and could be configured to seat as many as 853 passengers. But many airlines were already moving away from the 747 and the hub and spoke model for more efficient twin engine aircraft. Airbus ended production of the A380 in 2021. The end of the 747 was pretty much inevitable and by some measures, maybe even by Boeing's own doing.
This is the last 747. Number 1,574. When we visited Boeing's Everett, Washington factory, the company was putting the final touches on it before heading out to be painted and flight tested. It's an exciting and emotional time for us.
The 747 has been absolutely transformational, certainly to all of aviation. And as part of that to Boeing, it laid the foundation for the twin aisle aircraft that followed. Boeing's only going to build planes that airlines want. The orders stopped coming in for the 747 because Boeing and others have built other aircraft that can do the same job that the 747 can or close to it. So the 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus a350 can fly routes that the 747 couldn't.
They can go much further nonstop. The company delivered its last passenger version to Korean Air in 2017. That same year, all US airlines stopped flying it. When the 747 were retired, people were really sad.
United's last 747 flight from San Francisco to Hawaii had its departure covered live on television in San Francisco. It was a big deal. Boeing 747 was the most successful widebody until 2018, after Boeing's 777 took the number one slot. When you look at the 777-8 freighter and you compare it to the 747, it can carry similar to cargo levels, but with the twin engine economics and it has over 30% reduction in fuel burn, which is great for our customers efficiency as well as for sustainability and the environment.
Demand for cargo versions remained strong until 2020, when the company announced it would end production of the 747 freighter version. It just really made sense that we would shift to the twin engine model over the four engine model of the 747. Atlas Air has the largest fleet of 747s and will take final delivery of the last plane in early 2023.
The ending of the 747 comes at a time when the aviation industry is looking to transform itself with more fuel efficient, environmentally friendly technologies. Boeing CEO recently said the company would not design a new airplane in the next decade, while the company waits for new fuel efficient engines to be developed. Since advances in engine technology doesn't yet warrant enough of a fuel cut for buyers.
The ends of the 747 is pretty much the least of the issues that are going on at Boeing right now. This is a manufacturer that in 2018 and 2019 had two of its best selling 737 max planes crash and 346 people were killed. Since then, the company has been trying to regain its footing. It has picked up sales of those aircraft once again. But it's not the only thing that Boeing is dealing with. It also had production flaws on its 787 Dreamliner that delayed deliveries for almost two years. There's a third front that Boeing is dealing with, which was the replacement essentially for the 747, the 777x, and that's a plane that has been delayed and delayed and delayed and it's not going to be delivered and flying for customers until at least early 2025.
So the end of the 747 is kind of this turning point for the company. In the meantime, airlines looking to purchase large widebody aircraft are turning to Boeing's 777 and Dreamliner, as well as Airbus, A350 and A330. United Airlines placed the largest order of any commercial carrier for widebodies, and that was for 100 Dreamliners.
And they have options to buy 100 more. As for the queen of the skies, the end of production doesn't mean you won't see her flying around anymore. There are 396, 747s still flying. 311 are freight, 44 of them are passenger planes and 41 for VIP or private service, including Virgin Orbit. Six airlines still operate the 747, Lufthansa is the largest with 25 in its fleet.
The airlines that have it will probably continue to operate it for maybe another ten years or so, perhaps a little bit longer. I think we'll continue to see the 747 operate as a freighter for decades to come because it's a really good freight airplane. There's plenty of other ways to experience a 747 too.
There are hotels, a water park and many other aviation museums around the world that have them on display. A testament to how iconic and transformative the queen of the skies has been over the last several decades. The 747 is beloved in a way that most other commercial airliners are not. I remember my first 747 flight. It was on American Airlines from Kennedy to Dallas Love Field.
I don't think you're going to see people crying when the 777 or the 787 Dreamliner decades from now is retired. It they just don't have the same emotional connection. She was my first jet. That was the first jet I ever flew.
And I don't know if there's many other pilots that can say that. So I guess that's why she's my baby. And I think because I felt like if I took care of her, she'd take care of me. You could say it's the hump, it's the shape, the size, all those things. But what I think this airplane, it inspires us that we can do these amazing things. And I think that that is what has captured everybody's imagination.
Why is there such an emotional attachment to this airplane that it just reminds us as human beings that we can do amazing things.