Dreamed up in another age, the 747 was in the skies before Concorde, before man reached the moon, and when the president of the United States was a child. Boeing’s most famous plane has been up there ever since, redefining the language of aviation as the original jumbo jet, carrying twice as many passengers as most other aircraft. Hundreds criss-cross the globe every day, and new 747s still slowly gestate on the production line. But it is now almost 18 months since the last order from a passenger airline, and the long flight of the 747 appears to be firmly in its descent.
Boeing insists it has a future: even the president still wants it, for a revamped Air Force One. But, White House aside, its demise has been long-signalled after more than 1,500 orders since it first entered service in 1970.
Total aircraft orders have only broken into double figures once in the eight years, through a single Korean Airlines purchase, since rival Airbus delivered its first A380. The European manufacturer’s bigger, more efficient plane promised to out-jumbo the jumbo, extending the distinctive bump of the 747’s prow along the fuselage into a full double-decker.
Yet the A380’s own mixed fortunes – 317 have been ordered since it launched but interest is dwindling – suggest plus-sized planes are out of fashion. Only Emirates, the deep-pocketed Gulf carrier whose Dubai base has been remodelled around its superjumbo-shaped business plan, has kept the A380 sales figures respectable. In its slightly sniffy annual forecasts, Boeing claims the widebody, or twin-aisle, sector of the aircraft market will be of dwindling importance, with the A380 unlikely to succeed.
Whether both jumbos will be taken down by similar forces is a moot point: Tim Clark, the chief executive of Emirates, says the A380 chiefly suffered by being launched during the financial crisis, when few would risk such a new investment. On that Boeing might privately agree: the 747’s early years, after it entered commercial service in 1970, were dogged by a weak global economy. And Boeing itself expects demand for its largest planes to pick up with the global economy.
But only its freight version, a windowless 747 with a hinged nose to allow oversized cargo on board, is selling right now – though only two were sold in 2014. In 2015, only the Azerbaijan cargo carrier Silk Way has bitten. Production of 747s has slowed to 1.5 a month; with just 35 more planes on the order books, which equates to two more years’ manufacturing.
British Airways was once the world’s biggest operator of 747-400s, the longer-range variant developed in the 1980s, but has started retiring its fleet in favour of more fuel-efficient planes: A380s now, the upcoming A350, and Boeing’s smaller 787 Dreamliner.
BA insists that the 747’s day is far from done. The plane remains “the much-loved workhorse and backbone of our long-haul fleet”, according to a spokesperson, with 42 747s in operation. They will be flying for BA until at least 2020. Some have been sold in their entirety, others for parts; BA also retains some 747s as part donors for the active, ageing fleet.
What will kill the 747? Specifically, progress in engine manufacture: the 747’s four engines look increasingly redundant and expensive as reliable, efficient iterations allow longer routes and more passengers to be flown on two. Boeing’s upcoming twin-engine 777X will carry 400 seats. The high fuel costs and narrow profit margins that characterised much of the previous ten years made an underoccupied jumbo economically unviable, and airlines have taken to scheduling multiple slots on popular routes to meet consumer demand, rather than one big take-off.
Another factor hastening the 747’s departure, at least from British skies, is noise. In one office at Heathrow, reports of the death of the 747 are welcome. John Holland-Kaye, the airport’s chief executive, says: “It’ll be great to have those replaced. It fits in with our plans for making Heathrow cleaner and quieter. I’m sure there will be a few people that will be a misty-eyed about it leaving service, in the same way as Concorde: they are one plane that you can always recognise.”
But, Holland-Kaye says, the difference in noise between the 747 and a new plane such as the A350, which comes into service this year, is stark: “It’s far quieter – less of a screeching noise and that’s really welcome for local communities. They have a sense for how much better life will be when the 747s have gone.”
Heathrow expects that to occur within a decade; meanwhile it is raising charges on 747s for its NOx pollutants as well as noise. Landing a 747-400 will next year cost around £3,650 in environmental tariffs compared with just over £1,000 for a 787.
Others will though mourn its passing. Mark Vanhoenacker, a BA first officer and author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, has flown the 747 for eight years. “As a kid it was the airplane I looked up to – literally and in every sense. The phrase you hear about the 747 from pilots is that it just looks right. If you talked about the hump in the front it wouldn’t necessarily sound appealing but it works well. Joseph Sutter, the lead designer, was obsessed with birds, and I guess it looks like the head of a bird.”
He says it is an extraordinary plane to fly, “both for the sense of stateliness and the manoeuvrability, like an expensive German car. If you’re talking about engineering, those are two qualities that are quite opposing and hard to combine. When you’re flying it and turning, it feels like a very small plane, but you don’t feel turbulence in the same way.”
Pilots also enjoy its creature comforts: at BA the 747s are known as the ensuite fleet. “Our little bedroom is within the cockpit: you can stick your pyjamas on and clean your teeth without anyone seeing you. And coming out the bunk when you wake up, it’s a different light and you’re in a plane cockpit in the sky,” he says. A number of those pilots will leave the skies when the 747 does. “Some captains probably think that to retire from the 747 is as good as it gets; I can understand that.”
In fact, the fading dominance of the 747 has already impacted on Vanhoenacker and his colleagues, with pilots only normally flying one model and three long-haul alternatives now in play. “One of the sad things is that if you wanted to see the world, the 747 was the plane: being a trained 747 pilot you’d be connecting to all the major cities. Our individual worlds will always be smaller, because the planet has been divided into four different plane types.”