The Boeing 747 jetliner, the bulbous-nosed behemoth that effectively kicked off the era of mass tourism, has left the building.
But the ending, when it came, was a bit anticlimactic. Boeing hadn’t produced a passenger version of the widebody in several years, and the last model that rolled off the assembly line in Seattle earlier this month was a freighter version built for cargo line Atlas Air.
Out of a total of 1,574 747s built over its lifetime, just around 100 are still in service. Most airlines had retired their 747 fleets in favor of a new generation of long-haul aircraft, which carry fewer people than the 450-passenger giant, and, with just two engines versus the 747’s four, burn less fuel.
Still, few airplanes have ever generated the kind of excitement that the 747 did when it debuted in 1970. It was, after all, the world’s first widebody passenger aircraft, and international travelers accustomed to the cramped confines of planes like the single-aisle 707 were wowed.
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“It was a great plane,” British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said at a recent ceremony at New York JFK Airport marking its move to partner American’s Terminal 8. “There’s a lot of nostalgia and love for it.” But he seemed to sum up the general industry mood when he said: “the future is about modern aircraft, more efficiency, more sustainable solutions.” BA sent its remaining 747s to the aircraft boneyard in mid-2020.
Some airlines have stoked the nostalgia factor even as they were parking their own 747s. Take United, which once had a sizable fleet of the jumbos that it acquired from Pan Am, the original launch customer for the plane. In announcing the plane’s retirement in 2017, United promoted a farewell tour, along with commemorative souvenirs and amenities kits.
The fact that the aircraft entered service on storied, but now defunct, carriers like Pan Am, TWA, and Braniff, also plays into the notion of it as a symbol of the supposed “golden age of air travel,” as opposed to the crowded planes and flight disruptions most of us associate with air travel these days.
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But some experts say that the 747 was instrumental in getting us to this point.
“It transformed the way people could travel around the world,” said Clive Irving, a veteran journalist and author of the book JUMBO: The Making of the 747. Its large payload dramatically reduced the airlines’ costs per seat mile, he noted, making it possible to lower fares and operate profitably. Airlines were soon packing planes with budget-minded leisure travelers while maintaining a first-class product for those who could afford it.
The additional real estate also led to lavish premium sections with amenities like piano bars; some carriers configured the plane’s small upper deck as a business class with a private jet feel. But the main difference was that with a 20-foot-wide cabin interior and two aisles, passengers had a sense of space no matter where they were sitting. “It freed people from the tube,” of the earliest jet models, said Irving.
Safety was also a high priority.
“The people who designed it were keenly aware that a plane carrying far more people than any before it, had to be a very robust plane,” said Irving. “Because if it did crash, it would kill a lot more people.” Redundancies were built into every aspect of the design, from the four engines to multiple hydraulic systems. There were some high-profile air disasters involving the 747 – including the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, TWA 800 in 1996, and the worst aviation crash in history, the head-on collision of two 747s at a fogged-in airport in Tenerife in 1977, in which 583 people died. None of these involved the airworthiness of the plane, Irving points out.
Ironically, with the demise of the 747 and the decision of Airbus to end production of its double-decker Airbus A380, passengers might have to get used to flying “in the tube” again, Irving said. That’s because the latest aircraft trend is towards the development of long-distance single-aisle jets, such as the narrowbody Airbus A321 XLR, which have the range to fly over the Atlantic or from the U.S. to South America. They can also fly between smaller markets where a jumbo would be impractical. But whatever the benefits of the next generation of planes, there will always be those who will miss those inflight cocktail lounges and showers of the widebody’s heyday.