The Last of the Jumbo Jets

Boeing 747
Getty/guvendemir

Donald Trump has famously scolded Boeing for the estimated cost of the next generation Air Force One aircraft. Whether his opinion changes Boeing's strategy remains to be seen. And while neither you nor I will be flying on Air Force One anytime soon, a more meaningful change is occurring in the airline industry that will change the way the public travels, and it has gone almost unnoticed by anyone outside the industry.

The jumbo jet is going away. The four-engine jet transport most recognizable in the form of the epic Boeing 747 is fast becoming a relic. The "Queen of the Skies" is passing on her crown to a younger and leaner era of airplanes. 

Conceived and created in the 1960s to carry the world's passengers over the oceans and around the world, the Boeing 747 was intended to be the future of long-haul, transoceanic flight. And for almost 50 years, it has done exactly that. With its ability to carry 500 passengers 7,000 miles (or 274,000 pounds of freight over 2000 miles) nonstop, the 747 gave rise to Boeing and the U.S. aerospace industry in an important period in history — the period during and after the Cold War.

In 1966, more than 80 747s were produced. By 1991 the number had risen to more than 120 as the air freight business ramped up. In the meantime, the aviation industry as we knew it was already changing.

The hub-and-spoke system that brought passengers to a central point of disembarkation where they could be loaded aboard the giant four-engine airliners was already becoming cumbersome. Passengers always want direct flights and as the major hubs become more and more congested, airlines moved toward more direct flights from satellite airports and smaller cities — service best provided by twin-engine jets like the 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350.

And as these fuel-efficient twin-engine jets have become approved for ETOPs, they are serving the transoceanic routes that were once the domain of the 747. Boeing never produced as many as 80 747 aircraft again, and after delivering its 1500th 747 in June 2014, the company was producing fewer than 10 per year. In January 2016, Boeing announced that it would decrease production of the 747 even more, to just six per year.

Today the 747 is being displaced by larger versions of twin-engine jets such as the Boeing 777, which is now being stretched to accommodate more than 400 passengers, with even larger versions on the drawing board, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Boeing says it may soon discontinue production of the 747 altogether, citing a low demand for international routes and slow growth of the worldwide freight market. 

The 747 isn't the only jumbo jet around. At least two other four-engine passenger jets have served the markets alongside the Boeing 747 during its reign and we'll continue to see some of them in the air for years to come. The Airbus A340 dominated the long-haul market before twin-engine ETOPS certification became a thing, and the Airbus A380, thought to be the world’s answer to long-haul flights, is also at the end if its time, although Emirates would like not to think about that.

The Airbus A340 has four engines, making it immune to ETOPs restrictions and thus an obvious and popular choice for airlines operating overseas passenger flights, but it was quickly replaced by new and improved twin-engine aircraft. The A340 first entered service in 1993 but over a 10-year span the company lost most of its A340 customers to Boeing’s 777 — a newer, more fuel-efficient and longer range twin-engine airplane with all the bells and whistles. Boeing was quickly able to obtain ETOPS 240 and beyond for the 777 with its newer engines, making it a suitable substitute for the A340 and essentially killing any chance for the older airplane. Approximately 227 A340 aircraft were still in service as of 2015, but production was stopped in 2011.

The A380 has also been a victim of changing times in the aviation industry and the global economy.

In addition to the global economic downturn during the early 2000s, the A380 faced many growing pains. The timing for the A380 development couldn’t have been worse. Crippled by production delays, it was introduced in 2005, later than planned and after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, which rattled the aviation industry around the world and caused a significant decline in air travel and a global recession. In addition, the newly designed double-decker jumbo jet encountered various growing pains like design flaws and airport infrastructure challenges. This, just as the air transportation system began to evolve to include more efficient twin-engine jets like the A350, 777, and 787, more low-cost carriers and a decrease in hub-and-spoke routes in favor of point-to-point routes. Having competing range and better efficiency, these new aircraft quickly consumed any route monopoly the A380 may have had. Add to this a decline in overall load factors, and it’s no surprise that airlines began to offload the A380 and cancel outstanding orders. Airbus originally planned to produce 45 A380s per year. Production peaked in 2013 at 42 and has fallen precipitously since, with only two airplanes produced in 2015.

Today, Airbus relies on Emirates for nearly half of the sales of its A380 (Emirates ordered 142 of them) and Boeing relies on the air cargo market to keep the 747 alive. In October 2016, UPS ordered 14 747-8 aircraft, and the growth potential still exists for cargo carriers like UPS and FedEx, considering the growth of internet shopping and large-scale businesses like Amazon.com. UPS and other cargo operators are in solid shape to continue their growth, although growth it predicted to be slower than expected. And British Airways may have retired a few of their 747s, but it’s also committed to maintaining around 40 if its remaining 747 aircraft for the next 10 years.

With UPS and British Airways being the only major players still in the game, how much longer will this iconic airplane stay in service?

In 2014, Delta Air Lines announced that it would phase out its fleet of Boeing 747 aircraft by 2017. By 2016, the airline was only operating nine 747s. And in early 2016, United Airlines unexpectedly announced that the company would be accelerating the retirement of its remaining 747s, with service expected to end entirely in 2018. KLM announced in 2015 that it would be retiring its entire 747 aircraft fleet, although the company said it intended to stretch out the retirement of its last 22 aircraft over a long period of time, even beyond 2020. Singapore Airlines, Air France, and Cathay Pacific, among others, have also announced 747 retirement plans. Some have already fully retired their 747s.

For the airlines, perhaps for the passengers, and for the environment, fuel-efficient and more environmentally-friendly aircraft, coupled with more direct routes, are a welcome progression. And so, like the grand ocean liners of old, the great gas-hogging, inefficient clipper ships of the sky have seen their day. It’s a bittersweet time for those who watched the Boeing 747 rise to fame, witnessed how it changed air travel and the global economy as we knew it, and will now watch it fly off into the sunset.