Boeing bids farewell to icon, delivers last 747 jumbo jet

SEATTLE (AP) — Boeing said goodbye to an icon Tuesday: taking delivery of its last 747 jumbo jet.

Since its first flight in 1969, the gigantic but graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles and the presidential plane Air Force One. It revolutionized travel, connecting international cities that had never before had direct routes, and helped democratize passenger flights.

But in the past 15 years, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and economical wide-body planes, with just two engines for maintenance instead of the 747’s four. The latest plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

A large crowd of current and former Boeing workers is expected for the final send-off. The latter is delivered to cargo carrier Atlas Air.

“If you love this business, you’ve been dreading this moment,” said longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “Nobody wants a four-engine airplane anymore, but that doesn’t take away from the airplane’s tremendous contribution to the development of the industry or its remarkable legacy.”

Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A. The idea was to take advantage of the new engines developed for transport – high-bypass turbofan engines that burn less fuel by passing air around the engine core, allowing for greater flight range – and use them for a new civilian aircraft .

It took more than 50,000 Boeing workers less than 16 months to crank out the first 747, a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Phenomenals.” The production of the jumbo jet required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle – the largest building in the world by volume.

The plane’s fuselage was 225 feet (68.5 meters) long and the tail was as tall as a six-story building. The aircraft’s design featured a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the aircraft, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring the nickname The Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the Queen of the Skies.

Some airlines turned the second deck into a premium cocktail lounge, while even the lower deck sometimes included lounge chairs or even a piano bar. A decommissioned 747 originally built for Singapore Airlines in 1976 has been converted into a 33-room hotel near Stockholm Airport.

“It was the first large carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to figure out what to do with it and how to fill it,” said Guillaume de Sion, a history professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania who specializes in aviation and mobility. “That’s become the essence of mass air travel: You can’t fill it with people paying full price, so you have to lower prices to get people to board.” This contributed to what happened in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air transport.

The first 747 entered service in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route and had a terrible time, Aboulafia said. It debuted shortly before the oil crisis of 1973, amid a recession in which Boeing employment fell from 100,800 employees in 1967 to a low of 38,690 in April 1971. The “Boeing Bust” was infamously noted by billboard near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that reads: “Will be the last person to leave SEATTLE — lights out.”

An updated model — the 747-400 series — arrived in the late 1980s and had much better timing, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s, Aboulafia said. He recalls taking a Cathay Pacific 747 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong as a twentysomething tourist in 1991.

“Even people like me could go see Asia,” Aboulafia said. “Before, you had to stop for fuel in Alaska or Hawaii and it cost a lot more. It was a straight shot – and reasonably priced.”

Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including German airline Lufthansa.

Atlas Air ordered four 747-8 freighters early last year, with the last one leaving the factory on Tuesday.

Boeing has its roots in the Seattle area and has assembly plants in Washington state and South Carolina. The company announced in May that it would move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Va., bringing its executives closer to key officials in the federal government and the Federal Aviation Administration, which certifies Boeing passenger and cargo planes.

Boeing’s relationship with the FAA has been strained since the deadly crashes of its best-selling plane, the 737 Max, in 2018 and 2019. It took the FAA nearly two years — far longer than Boeing expected — to approve design changes and allow the plane to the air returns.

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