It transformed the airline industry and it brought international travel to the masses. So as Boeing officials acknowledge that the 747 has outlived its usefulness as a passenger plane, a eulogy seems to be in order.
As Guy Gratton wrote last year for CNN.com: “As the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747 went on to change not only aviation but the entire tourism industry. Its economic design did much to move international travel within reach of middle-class vacationers rather than just the privileged few.”
In Washington, that impact has been profound ever since the plane took its maiden commercial voyage in 1970. The airliner further entrenched Boeing — which had been founded in Seattle and was still based there — as the global leader among airplane manufacturers, and it was the singular reason the company built and developed its now-iconic plant in Everett. While transforming airplane travel, the 747 transformed an entire state.
Because of that, an announcement this week from company executives is cause for a bit of melancholy. Officials said their projections for the future of airplane travel see little use for the 747 as a passenger plane, although they expect business for 747 cargo planes to remain robust. That is a result of changes in consumer demand; the industry is moving toward newer, more efficient airliners that can land at smaller (meaning more) airports, rendering the 747 obsolete. “We don’t see much demand for really big airplanes,” said Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president of marketing.
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The 747 is, indeed, big, leading to its nomenclature as the original “jumbo jet.” With a distinctive forward hump to accommodate a double-decker seating arrangement, the plane can carry up to 660 passengers in a high-density single-class configuration. Most commonly, it is equipped for 416 passengers in a three-class layout, with the main cabin having two aisles. The plane’s four-engine design was revolutionary, and its capacity was roughly 50 percent larger than the industry standard at the time. The 747’s impact was so great that the president of Pan Am World Airways declared it would be “a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind’s destiny.”
As Clive Irving wrote for TheDailyBeast.com in 2014: “The 747 launched a new generation of global travel. It was 30 percent cheaper to operate than previous jets, and it carried twice as many people. More than that, it was ultimate proof of a surpassing American technical achievement … It was not just a machine but a universal phenomenon.”
That phenomenon became the icon for air travel, for Boeing and, to an extent, for Washington. But icons become weathered over time, and markets become altered. For airlines, that means demand for slightly smaller planes, but it does not mean a downturn in the industry.
Global airline travel has demonstrated long-term growth of about 5 percent a year, and Boeing officials expect that growth to continue. Thanks largely to emerging markets in China and Southeast Asia, the company’s 20-year market projections suggest that last year’s 3.3 billion passenger trips will expand to 7.5 billion by 2036. That demand will be serviced by planes such as Boeing’s 737 MAX and the upcoming 777X. Meanwhile, 747 production in Everett will depend upon the market for cargo jets.
Yet while the airline industry is expected to thrive, it will never be quite the same. The 747 fleet is being phased out, but its place in history is secure.