Feb. 11, 2019, © Leeham News: Few airplanes truly can be called revolutionary. Most are evolutionary.
The Boeing 747 was one of those that falls into the former category.
Just as the Boeing 707 revolutionized air travel, so did the 747.
The spaciousness and, after a period of engine difficulties, the economics put the 747 into a class by itself.
This past weekend, the 747 became 50 years old. More than 1,500 were produced. There are 536 still in service, just 187 of them passenger models.
There are only 46 passenger models of the 747-8 in service, including VIP versions. There are still five 747-300s, three with a Nigerian charter airline, one VIP and one with Pakistan. There are 136 747-400s in service.
The 747-8I proved to be a plane past its time for airlines, which preferred the twin-engined, long-haul airplanes that were smaller, more efficient and easier to fill.
Even the 747-8F has limited popularity now. Its nose door feature is needed by only a very few airlines. Orders for the smaller, more efficient and easier to fill Boeing 777F and Boeing 767-300ERF are robust. There are only 57 orders for the 747-8F compared with 134 orders for the 777F and 126 for the 767-300ERF for the same period.
When the 747 was designed and entered service, in January 1970, the airline industry was in a different era. Luxury and passenger experience was important. Today, the passenger experience is all about cramming as many people into the plane as possible with as little legroom as possible.
The 747 was designed for comfort. The Upper Deck, initially “dead” space behind the cockpit, became a lounge for first class passengers. This harked back to the era of the Boeing Stratocruiser, with its lower deck lounge.
In 1970, passenger still dressed up: suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women.
The 747 entered service into a recession. Air travel was depressed. To take up space in the airplane, which was three times larger than the 707 and Douglas DC-8, some airlines put lounges not just in the hump but also on the main deck.
American Airlines had a piano bar in the rear. Continental Airlines used the hump. TWA was on the main deck. This Google page has lots of pictures of lounges. Of course, when the recession ended and traffic picked up, the airlines swapped the lounges for seats.
The 747’s revolutionary standards demanded that smaller widebodies be created.
McDonnell Douglas designed the DC-10. Lockheed reentered the commercial transport business with its L-1011, an airplane virtually identical to the DC-10.
About 100 passengers smaller, these were more economical for US domestic service and trans-ocean routes that could not support daily 747 flights.
Robert Crandall, CEO of American during this era, liked the smaller DC-10 for its flexibility. He preferred frequency to size. American disposed of its 747-100s in only seven years as Crandall switched to the DC-10. It later operated two Boeing 747s, the SP, on the Dallas-Tokyo route. The 747SP was then the only airplane that could make the long flight non-stop. These were disposed of when the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was delivered.
Parenthetically, it was on one of these SPs that I had my only heads-down, prepared emergency landings.
The widebody comfort also was applied to the Airbus A300/310 and Boeing 767-200/300 series. These were the Middle of the Market aircraft of their day.
The Boeing 777, Airbus A330/340, 787 and A350 followed. The Boeing NMA is going to be a twin-aisle airplane, if launched.
All these owe their antecedents to the 747’s revolutionary, ground-breaking design and concept.
And, of course, there’s the Airbus A380.
Airbus officials claim growing passenger demand, which doubles every 15 years, requires the A380. In reality, there was a lot of 747 envy and the belief that without a similarly sized airliner, the Airbus product line was incomplete.
Technically, the A380 is a superb airplane. But by the time it entered service in 2008, the industry moved from Very Large Aircraft to a plethora of twin-engine, twin aisle airplanes that could do the VLA’s job cheaper and open far more markets.
It’s unlikely we’ll see another 747-type airplane any time soon.