For decades, the Boeing 747 was the Queen of the Skies. But the glamorous double-decker jumbo jet that revolutionized air travel and shrunk the globe could be nearing the end of the line.
Boeing has cut its production target twice in six months. Just 18 will be produced in each of the next two years. Some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant. Counting cancellations, it hadn’t sold a single 747 this year until Korean Air bought five on Thursday.
Boeing said it’s committed to the 747, and sees a market for it in regions like Asia. But most airlines simply don’t want big, four-engine planes anymore. They prefer newer two-engine jets that fly the same distance while burning less fuel.
“We had four engines when jet engine technology wasn’t advanced,” Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson said at a recent conference. “Now jet engines are amazing, amazing machines and you only need two of them.”
Delta inherited 16 747s when it bought Northwest Airlines in 2008. Northwest last ordered a 747 in 2001, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets.
SEATS TO FILL
Part of the problem is all those seats. A 747 can seat from 380 to 560 people, depending on how an airline sets it up. A full one is a moneymaker. But an airline that can’t fill all the seats has to spread the cost of 63,000 gallons of jet fuel – roughly $200,000 – among fewer passengers.
They’re also too big for most markets. There aren’t enough passengers who want to fly each day between Atlanta and Paris, for example, to justify several jumbo jet flights. And business travelers want more than one flight to choose from. So airlines fly smaller planes several times a day instead.
“No one wants the extra capacity” that comes with jumbo jets like the 747 and the Airbus A380, said Teal Group aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia.
THE GAME CHANGER
The 747 once stood alone, with more seats than any other jet and a range of 6,000 miles, longer than any other plane.
The plane was massive: six stories tall and longer than the distance the Wright Brothers traveled on their first flight.
On the early planes, the distinctive bulbous upper deck was a lounge, so it had just six windows. The plane epitomized the modern age of international jet travel.