Boeing's Iconic 747 May Be Flying Into The Sunset

Originally published on March 29, 2014 11:36 am

While global attention has been focused on Malaysia Airlines' missing 777 this week, Boeing's best-known aircraft, the 747, was also in the news. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered Boeing to immediately fix a software glitch that could cause problems during landing.

The software flaw is not the only problem for the enormous 747. Over four decades ago, it was the original "jumbo jet," but the newest version of Boeing's iconic plane has not sold well. On Monday, Japan's All Nippon Airways announced it will officially retire its aging 747 passenger fleet.

The 747 made its debut with the now-defunct Pan American Airways in 1970, and in its day, the jumbo jet was groundbreaking.

It had a second floor, and four engines where most aircraft had two. Its vast size meant it could carry up to 550 passengers — more than twice as much as many other airplanes.

"The 747 was a fantastic aircraft which was very, very different from anything else anybody had ever flown in at the time," says Howard Wheeldon, an industry analyst who traveled on a 747 when it was the premium flying experience in the 1970s.

First-class cabins looked more like living rooms — spacious, with sofas and a spiral staircase to the upper deck.

"What the 747 did was to create a little bit of space where you could actually stand at a bar," Wheeldon remembers.

But for economy passengers, Pan Am touted the 747 as a way to bring international travel to the masses.

As a Pan Am promotional video from the era says, "The goal has always been to take people where they want to go at fares people can afford to pay."

Boeing has built over 1,400 747s. But today the jumbo jet is not what it used to be, and Japan's All Nippon isn't the only carrier to drop the plane.

Singapore and Japan airlines have retired their 747 fleets. Others plan to follow.

If there's anyone who's noticed fewer 747's in the air, it's Adam Chester, an aviation enthusiast who joins others of his kind to watch planes take off and land just outside London's Heathrow Airport — one of the world's busiest travel hubs.

How often does he see a 747?

"You used to get quite a lot of 747s, but not that many that come in here now," Chester says. "I think 747s will be a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future."

In fact, industry analysts have predicted that for some time, Richard Aboulafia, a commercial and military aircraft expert with the Teal Group consulting firm, says that with its four engines, the 747 is a gas-guzzler. Airlines are opting instead for newer, two-engine planes — like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

"Getting rid of engines is a great thing in terms of fuel efficiency," Aboulafia says. "That's why more and more airlines are focusing on those smaller-sized planes."

Smaller planes also allow airlines to offer more flight times and routes. But the 747, Aboulafia says, is a big plane used to carry lots of passengers from major airport to major airport, where they often have to run for a connecting flight.

"That's really not fun," he says. "People will pay more to fly directly with a smaller jet. It's so much better to cut out that hub."

Boeing admits the 747 market is shrinking.

"Will we sell hundreds and thousands of 747s in the future? No," Company spokesman Randy Tinseth says. "It is, though, a significant, important market, and that's why we have an airplane in that segment."

Boeing has scaled back production to only one and a half new 747s per month. Aviation consultant Ernest Arvai expects the company to keep the line running just long enough to replace Air Force One.

The two presidential 747s in service now are already more than a quarter-century old. The Air Force is in the market for a four-engine aircraft to replace them. Boeing wouldn't comment on whether it's a contender.

Arvai says the company won't want to lose out to its European rival, Airbus, and its big, four-engine plane, the A380.

"I don't think it would be a good thing if the president chose Airbus for Air Force One," he says. "I think we'll see the 747 available until the next one is built and delivered."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's move now from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, a Boeing 777, to news this week about Boeing's 747. The federal aviation administration has ordered Boeing to fix a software glitch that could cause problems during landing and that is not the big plane's only problem. It also hasn't been selling well. On Monday, Japan's own Nippon Airways will retire its aging fleet of 747s, all of which raises a question about the future of the original jumbo jet. Christopher Werth reports.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: The 747 made its debut with the now defunct Pan American Airways in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTH: This music is from an old ad for the airline and in its day the jumbo jet was groundbreaking. It had a second floor and four engines where most aircraft had two.

HOWARD WHEELDON: The 747 was a fantastic aircraft, which was very, very different than anything else anybody had ever flown in time.

WERTH: Howard Wheeldon is an industry analyst who traveled on a 747 when it was the flying experience in the 1970s. First class cabins looked more like living rooms, spacious with sofas and a spiral staircase to the upper deck.

WHEELDON: What the 747 did was to create a little bit of space where you could actually stand at a bar.

WERTH: But for economy passengers, Pan Am touted the 747 as a way to bring international travel to the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRLINE COMMERCIAL)

WERTH: Boeing has built over 1400 747s but today the jumbo jet is not what it used to be and Japan's own Nippon is not the only carrier to drop the plane. Singapore and Japan Airlines have retired their 747 fleets; others plan to follow. And if there's anyone who's noticed fewer 747s in the air, it's this guy.

ADAM CHESTER: My name's Adam Chester.

WERTH: I met Adam Chester in a field just outside of London's Heathrow Airport. This is where true aviation enthusiasts come to watch planes roar overhead as they take off and land.

CHESTER: Oh, there you go.

WERTH: What was that?

CHESTER: That's a Gulf Air A330.

WERTH: How often would you say you see a 747?

CHESTER: You used to get quite a lot of 747s but not that many come in here now. I think 747s will be a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.

WERTH: In fact, industry analysts have predicted that for some time. I met Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group at an air show last year. He says with its four engines, the 747 is a gas guzzler. Airlines are opting instead for newer two-engine planes like Boeing's own 787 Dreamliner.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: Getting rid of engines is a great thing in terms of fuel efficiency, and that's why more and more airlines are focusing on those smaller-sized planes.

WERTH: Which also allow airlines to offer more flight times and routes, whereas, Aboulafia says, the 747 is a big plane used to carry lots of passengers from major airports to major airports where they often have to run for a connecting flight.

ABOULAFIA: It's really not fun and people will pay more to fly directly with a smaller jet.

WERTH: Boeing admits the 747 market is shrinking. Randy Tinseth is a company spokesman.

RANDY TINSETH: Will we sell hundreds and thousands of 747s in the future? No. It is, though, a significant, important market and that's why we have an airplane in that segment.

WERTH: Boeing has scaled back production to only one and a half new 747s per month and aviation consultant Ernest Arvai expects the company to keep the line running just long enough to replace Air Force One. The two presidential 747s in service now are already more than a quarter century old and the air force is in the market for a four-engine aircraft to replace them. Boeing wouldn't comment whether it's a contender, but Arvai says the company won't want to lose out to its European rival, Airbus.

ERNEST ARVAI: I don't think it would be a good thing if the President chose Airbus for Air Force One, so I think we'll still see the 747 available until the next one is built and delivered.

WERTH: But then, Arvai suspects Boeing will finally say goodbye to its jumbo jet. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.