LONDON – In the last two years and 10 months that I have been writing for Airways, I have hit the milestone of reaching 747 articles, this one being the article in question.
For those that do not know the overall history of the Boeing 747, this article will briefly examine its history and how it was such a game-changer for the aviation industry in those times as well as look at how the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic may have accelerated its retirement dates.
The History of the ‘Queen of the Skies’
The design of the aircraft was developed in the 1960s when the air travel market was beginning to boom.
Aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, which had brought forward the long-haul market that far to the point that more capacity would be needed. And that ultimately meant requiring larger aircraft.
Pan Am (PA) President Juan Trippe asked Boeing to build an aircraft twice the size of the 707.
1965 saw the world-famous designer Joe Sutter transfer from the manufacturer’s 737 program to spearhead this new project.
Design consultation between Sutter & Trippe began shortly after the move had been made.
After a year of such research and development, PA signed a deal with Boeing for 25 747-100 aircraft valued at US$525m, which in today’s money would have been close to around US$3.7b.
Trippe famously said at the delivery ceremony that the aircraft would be a “great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind’s destiny,” which sparked up big attention for this aircraft.
In the same year, a piece of land was bought at Paine Field, which at the time was 780 acres, in order to accommodate for the sheer size of the 747 program.
On September 30, 1968, the manufacturer unveiled the first 747 prototype to the general public and also to the 26 customers that had ordered the aircraft after PA.
A few months later, on February 9, 1969, the aircraft took to the skies on its first test flight, with the only minor issue being with the flap system.
By January 1970, the Boeing 747 entered into commercial service on PA’s New York-London route, but engine overheating made the original aircraft unusable, meaning that a Clipper Victor had to be used.
1971 saw the -200 model introduced to customers, following some success from the -100 and -100SR (Short-Range) variants before the 747SP (Special Performance) with a far longer range was developed and entered service in 1976.
In 1980, the -300 variant came to light, of which Boeing looked at increasing the seat capacity of the aircraft, as well as pursuing more options towards combination variants of which freight and passenger operations could easily be implemented.
Five years later, Boeing took it another step further with the -400 variant, which is generally the variant that we see today.
This enabled a glass cockpit to be installed, meaning only two cockpit crew instead of the conventional three as well as other new technologies that it had opted to install which caused development costs to soar as well as production delays.
By 1989, the -400 variant had entered service with Northwest Airlines (NW) before the likes of Qantas (QF) and Singapore Airlines (SQ) also taking a heavily vested interest into the variant.
The aircraft broke records, one of which in 1991, for Operation Solomon when a staggering 1,087 passengers boarded an airlift to Israel in an effort to bring all Ethiopian Jews to Israel. That flight accounted for 7.5% of all Jews airlifted back to the country.
It also remained the heaviest commercial aircraft in regular service until Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov brought in the AN-124 and AN-225 Mriya.
Other designs to the 747 before the more recent -8I & F variants came about, with there being initial plans for the -500 and -600 variants in 1996. It was estimated that it would have cost more than US$5bn to develop the jet amid not being that much demand for the aircraft itself.
The -8I & F variants came following Airbus’ response to the jumbo-market with the Airbus A3XX as it was dubbed at the time, later being called the A380.
The -8F was the more popular variant, gaining 107 orders as opposed to the -8I’s 47 orders.
With most deliveries already nearly done on the -8I & F variants, Boeing made the decision in September 2016 to scale back production to six units per year.
Whilst not as successful as the likes of the -400 and Airbus A380, in a sense, it was just as well it hadn’t got so popular, as only four years later, the Coronavirus Pandemic was to hit the globe.
The -8’s glory will go out in a more positive manner however, with Boeing being contracted to develop the next Air Force One Presidential jets.
Overall, the 747 has had an incredible 50 years, delivering over 1,500 units of the type in its lifetime as well as it merging into different aircraft such as the VC-25, the E-4, YAL-1, and Dreamlifter variants, too.
COVID-19 Causing A Shorter Farewell
Data from April 2020 suggests that there are around 462 Boeing 747 aircraft still in service, with the breakdown listed as 10 -100, 20 -200, two -300, 298 -400, and 132 -8.
However, as the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic continues to crush the industry, airlines are looking to offload the far older and more expensive aircraft.
This section will look at a few airlines who have decided to offload these aircraft early.
In the UK, Virgin Atlantic (VS) has repositioned all seven of its 747-400 aircraft at Manchester Airport (MAN) to be decommissioned and prepared for retirement.
The airline had initially planned for its retirement over the next few years but due to costs from the Coronavirus Pandemic increasing, they will all be retired as part of CEO Shai Weiss’ crucial aim of returning “to profitability in 2021.”
Such retirements have encouraged consolidation of operations to just London Heathrow (LHR) as opposed to Gatwick (LGW) too, even though the carrier is retaining all of its slot portfolio at the other London airport.
Instead, the carrier will come out of this crisis with its Airbus A350-1000 and Boeing 787-9 aircraft as well as keeping some of its Airbus A330-200 that were from Air Berlin (AB) until 2022 at the latest. These moves had resulted in a job cut of 3,150 to the industry.
British Airways (BA) are also appearing to follow suit, with the airline owning around 31 747. Two units due for retirement have already been accelerated, with International Airlines Group (IAG) CEO Willie Walsh expecting maybe faster retirements.
“You should expect that to include a number of the 747 in the British Airways fleet”, he said to Forbes earlier this month.
At one point, the airline had around 57 -400 in its fleet before the Financial Crash of 2008, with it being reduced to 40 in 2015.
Like with Virgin, BA will be replacing these aircraft with the Boeing 787, 777-300ER, Airbus A350-1000 as well as 18 777X that it will be receiving over the next few years.
Over to the European pond has KLM, which in March stated that retirement plans of its remaining six -400 were that they would be scrapped in April as opposed to the Summer of next year.
As a positive caveat, the airline will be keeping three 747-400F aircraft which are owned by subsidiary Martinair (MP).
The airline had introduced the 747 into its fleet in 1971 with the -200 variant as well as becoming the launch customer for the -400M passenger/freighter combination version in 1989.
It is understood that the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner aircraft it has in its fleet will replace the aircraft going into the future.
Whilst QF has not openly said that the 747 in its fleet are being retired due to COVID, it is very clear that they were going to be gone soon anyway.
The last three 747 in the fleet were penned down for a 2020 retirement due to the replacements of the 787-9 Dreamliner being slowly delivered.
Qantas did confirm to the press that they had not been officially retired because of the pandemic but based on the current plans for recovery – it might be the case that the 747 is involved with that decision.
Cost-cutting will be needed on QF’s side, irrespective of its liquidity to fight through this period. The airline made the decision to delay its Project Sunrise, which is the ordering of Airbus A350-1000 or more Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners to cater to the ultra long-haul services between the UK and the US.
While the -8s will stay in the Lufthansa (LH) fleet, five of its 13 -400 will not. Those aircraft joined the six Airbus A380, seven A340-600 and three A340-300 that were on the list for phase-outs.
Lufthansa had its first 747 delivered in March 1970, registered as D-ABYA, which ironically is the registration for one of its -8I variants.
The -100s lasted in the LH fleet until 1978 at the latest, with it acquiring 28 -200s between 1971 and 1997.
The -400s entered service for the German carrier in May 1996 with the last one received in 2002 as well as its -8Is entering service between 2012 and 2015 accordingly.
It comes as no difficulty to say that the Boeing 747 pioneered and changed the way this industry behaves.
Looking into the future, it is going to come to a point where we will not see many units left of this jet in service.
Before the virus hit, the focus was on single-aisle wide-body jets such as the Airbus A321, A330neo, A350, Boeing 777 and 787 variants.
Airlines are wanting to spend less and get more, which unfortunately is not possible in the 747 anymore.
That being said, as the program begins its descent to its final destination, we can definitely say this aircraft will never be forgotten.