Some historic eras last slightly longer than expected, providing a little extra time to muse about their significance. Such is the case with the final U.S.-based flight of Boeing’s 747.
Delta’s last passenger flight of the iconic airplane finally took off Monday from Detroit to Seoul — after a 24-hour delay. The setback was caused when Delta could not find the required four pilots to fly the 747, adding an unusual coda to aircraft’s history.
As Bloomberg news wrote in anticipation of the 747’s final flight: “This airplane, more than any other, made long-range travel into a mass-market phenomenon.”
That transformation started with the first test flight from Boeing’s Everett plant on Feb. 9, 1969, and from the start the plane “symbolized access for millions of us to foreign lands not easily reached by telephones of the era. A generation came to learn the aircraft’s quirks, such as the jet’s bulbous nose and swept wings, and the vibrations during the take-off that caused over-stuffed luggage bins to pop open on early models.”
The 747 was the first twin-aisle plane and could carry more passengers for longer distances than any previous airliner, leading to a status as the first “jumbo jet.”
As The Columbian wrote editorially earlier this year: “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.”
The 747 is inextricably linked with Washington, which makes its demise among domestic airlines a cause for melancholy and reflection. Times have changed since the 747 transformed air travel; Boeing has moved its headquarters to Chicago, and airlines have gravitated toward smaller and more nimble planes rather than jumbo jets that can be accommodated by a limited number of airports.
But Boeing remains an essential part of Washington, with more workers than any other private employer while supporting hundreds of smaller vendors. The manufacturer has effectively adjusted to changing markets by developing new fleets of aircraft that carry passengers around the world. It remains in close competition with Europe-based Airbus for global supremacy in the aerospace industry.
Because of that, the demise of the 747 in the skies above the United States is mostly symbolic.
As Boeing historian Michael Lombardi told Bloomberg: “The range of the plane allowed it to go anywhere in the world. It was at that point in history where all of humanity had the ability to get on a flight. It was the plane that shrank the world; that is the legacy of the 747.”
And as Clive Irving wrote for The DailyBeast.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 technological achievement.”
All of that is important, but not as significant today as Boeing’s continued relevance. Delta’s final 747 flight came days after the Atlanta-based airline placed an order for 100 planes from Airbus, choosing the European manufacturer over Boeing.
That is a setback for Boeing, but not a devastating one. The company has long been at the forefront of innovation and service in the aerospace industry, building upon a legacy enhanced nearly 50 years ago by the 747.