What caused the death of a Boeing 747?

The death of the queen is a time for reflection. So it was when the last 747 jumbo jet — the “Queen of the Skies” to legions of fans — rolled off Boeing’s production line in Washington state on Dec. 6. Her death is slow and somewhat undignified. The last aircraft to be sold as a passenger carrier was in 2017 to Korean Air Lines. After that she was only used for cargo, and not many operators wanted her for that. Only 30,747 were ordered in the last five years. However, for those who associate the lumpy-headed bird with the heyday of aviation, it feels like the end of an era.

PanAm flew the first commercial 747 route in 1970, between New York’s JFK Airport and London Heathrow. Strict industry regulations at the time limited which routes airlines could fly. Ticket prices were also controlled. Those first jumbos typically carried 366 passengers, compared to about 200 on the Boeing 707s that flew the transatlantic route in the 1960s. This gave carriers a better chance of making a profit in the face of these restrictions. But their size would also prove to be a burden. When the oil shock hit in the mid-1970s, gas-guzzling four-engine beasts were a factor in crippling airline losses – not least because the recession meant it was harder to get seats.

In 1978, America deregulated its aviation market, the largest in the world. This prompted airlines to develop the hub-and-spoke business model. With fewer restrictions on the routes they can operate, carriers can fly huge planes to their home airports before transferring passengers to smaller planes to take them to their final destination; it changed both domestic and international air travel. This allowed operators to serve more airports with fewer aircraft. The more customers that can be squeezed onto flights traveling to the center, the better. This was a boon for what was then the world’s largest passenger plane. To secure its place in this system, in 1988 Boeing launched the 747-400, which could fly up to 8,354 miles (13,450 km) non-stop, about 650 miles more than its 747-300 predecessor. It normally carries 416 passengers.

In 2000, competition pushed Boeing’s jumbo out. In 2007, Airbus, the American firm’s major European competitor, launched the A380. This double-decker behemoth remains the largest passenger plane ever built, with up to 615 seats. For carriers whose primary interest was in funneling huge numbers of people through their hubs, it became the aircraft of choice. A new breed of “super-connectivity” airlines such as Emirates and Qatar have built their business models around them. Emirates operates 118 A380s and no 747s. More recently, carriers have been attracted to new ultra-efficient ultra-long-haul aircraft such as Airbus’ A350 and Boeing’s own 777. They carry nearly as many passengers but only have two engines, making it cost-effective to fly more point-to-point long-haul routes. The jumbo couldn’t survive this racing pincer. A sick Queen of Heaven was already on her deathbed when the pandemic killed her.

Still, the future of large passenger jets is starting to look a little brighter than it did before Covid-19 hit, even if the 747 will no longer be among them. (The A380 may not be for long either, because of these new long-haul planes.) Air traffic has recovered from the effects of the pandemic. But analysts believe that in the age of Zoom, leisure travelers will find it easier to get back into the skies than business people. Those on the company’s dime are more willing to pay a premium to board a flight at a convenient time, which means carriers must offer them more frequent flights with smaller planes. But tourists are more concerned about the price than the civilized departure time. They are also more likely to book well in advance. This makes their custom less lucrative, but means they can be stuffed into larger jets. The Queen may be dead, but the monarchy is alive and well.

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