In January 1970 Boeing introduced the beautiful 747 Jumbo Jet. The jet quickly became a symbol of the jet age. The beautiful “hump” on the 747 was introduced in order to house the vast computer network required to maintain flight, but allowed cabin versatility and a vast area for cargo which could be loaded through the nose of the aircraft. The plane has been hugely successful, but sadly it appears the aircraft is reaching the end of its life. The 747 outlasted the Concorde jet, which was retired in 2003 due to operational costs and it appears the 747 may suffer the same fate.
Over the years, airlines have started slowly retiring 747 aircraft and replacing them with either the 777, the 787, or new A350 aircraft. There is good reason for these replacements, operational costs. Just looking at the airplane reveals a major flaw, 4 engines. In 1970 when the 747 was introduced into service the FAA required long-range jets to have more than 2 engines. This is why many older jets had a third engine included in the vertical stabilizer. When the 747 was introduced, Boeing did not have the option to produce the aircraft with just 2 engines.
Early on, a twin engine aircraft had to be within 60 minute of an airfield at all times. Over time, this requirement has grown to 240 minutes, and most twin engine aircraft can sustain flight for several hours in the event of an engine failure. As this regulation has relaxed, it has opened up the option to fly twin engine aircraft on nearly all possible international routes. There is no longer a requirement to use a 4 engine aircraft on long-haul routes. When we consider the maintenance costs of maintaining 4 engines, rather than just two, we begin to see the start of the problem.
The other issue the 747 faces is cost. The listed unit cost of the 747-8i is $347 million, but the 777-300er only costs $320 million. It is true that the 747 can carry more passengers, but as airlines begin to introduce 10-across seating in economy the gap between the two airplanes is significantly reduced. Airlines have also started to chose the significantly cheaper 787-8 at just $224 million each. The success of the 777 and 787 are ultimately taking away orders from the 747 program further reducing the number of 747’s in operation.
As order slow down, it will become even rarer to see or fly on the “Queen of the Skies.” British Airways, Korean Air, and Lufthansa remain the 3 largest operators of the 747, but neither of these airlines have substantial outstanding orders for the 747. It appears as the demand for the commercial variant of the aircraft is nearing an end. Cargo carriers continue to demand the 747 due to the unprecedented cargo area and ability to load the aircraft through the nose. It you have never had the chance to fly on the 747 I highly recommend giving it a try. It is a unique opportunity that may not exist in a few years.