Boeing 747 could be near end of run as economical rivals pull ahead

Filling seats on giant Boeing 747 has become a problem and most airlines prefer smaller, two-engine aircraft that burn less fuel

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 9:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 3:44am

For decades, the Boeing 747 was the Queen of the Skies. But the glamorous double-decker jumbo jet that revolutionised air travel and shrank the globe could be nearing the end of the line.

Boeing has cut its production target twice in six months. Just 18 will be produced in each of the next two years. Some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant. Counting cancellations, it had not sold a single 747 this year until Korean Air bought five on Thursday.

Boeing says it is committed to the 747 and sees a market for it in regions such as Asia. But most airlines simply don't want big, four-engine planes anymore. They prefer newer two-engine jets that fly the same distance while burning less fuel.

"We had four engines when jet engine technology wasn't advanced," Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said recently. "Now jet engines are amazing, amazing machines and you only need two of them."

Part of the problem is all those seats. A 747 can carry from 380 to 560 people, depending on how an airline sets it up. A full one is a moneymaker. But an airline that cannot fill all the seats has to spread the cost of 63,000 gallons of jet fuel - roughly US$200,000 - among fewer passengers.

They're also too big for most markets, and business travellers want more than one flight to choose from, so airlines fly smaller planes more often.

"No one wants the extra capacity" that comes with jumbo jets such as the 747 and the Airbus A380, said Teal Group aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia.

The 747 once stood alone, with more seats than any other jet and a range of 9,655 kilometres, longer than any other plane.

The plane was massive: six stories tall and longer than the distance the Wright Brothers travelled on their first flight. On the early planes, the distinctive bulbous upper deck was a lounge, so it had just six windows. The plane epitomised the modern age of international jet travel.

"Everyone on the flight was dressed up," recalls passenger Thomas Lee, who was 17 when he took the inaugural passenger flight on Pan Am from New York to London in 1970. "After all, it was still back in the day when the romance of flight was alive and thriving."

International travel was mostly limited to those who could afford the pricey flights. The 747 changed that. The first 747s could seat twice as many passengers as the preferred international jet of the time, the Boeing 707. Long flights became more economical for the airlines.

Boeing began building 747s in the late 1960s. Production peaked at 122 in 1990. Technology eventually caught up with the 747.

As engines became more powerful and reliable, the US government in 1988 started allowing certain planes with just two engines to fly over the ocean, as far as three hours away from the nearest airport. Within a decade, twin-engine planes such as Airbus A330 and the Boeing 777 began to dominate long-haul routes.