Pontifications: The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.

By Scott Hamilton

Dec. 12, 2022, © Leeham News: The 1,574th Boeing 747 rolled off the production line last Tuesday. The last one, after 53 years of continuous production. The iconic aircraft was known as the Queen of the Skies.

The larger A380 didn’t replace the 747. McDonnell Douglas’s DC-10 and MD-11 didn’t replace it. The Lockheed L-1011 didn’t replace it. Neither did Boeing’s own 777-300ER. And neither will the 777X. The 777-X does not replace the 747—it succeeds the 747. I don’t think that anyone will characterize the 777X as “the Queen of the Skies.” The X looks like any other airplane. The 747 look is unique (a well-worn, overused word that in this case applies) and iconic. It has a nose door. The 777XF does not.

The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.

The last Boeing 747 to be built rolled off the Everett factory line Dec. 6, 2022. Line No. 1574 is for Atlas Air. After painting, a decal of legendary engineer Joe Sutter, the father of the 747, will be applied to the starboard side. Photo credit: Leeham News.

As it turns out, there was a debate within Boeing as far back as 2004 about whether to cancel the 747 program then. The 777-300ER was just entering service. There was a recognition within Boeing that the -300ER was the beginning of the end for the 747.

I tell this story in my book, Air Wars, The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing. Also in the book is the story about how Boeing tried to launch the 747-500 and 747-600, without success. Airbus won this competition, launching the A380 with Singapore Airlines and in the process killing the 747 derivatives. But Phil Condit, then the CEO of Boeing, wasn’t upset. Something else was in the hopper.

Below is a synopsis of these stories, excerpted from Air Wars.

Almost canceling the 747

Jim Albaugh [a former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes], Scott Carson [another former CEO of BCA], and others admitted the 777-300ER cannibalized the 747. Carson said Boeing debated inter­nally in 2008–2009 whether to launch the -8. Back when the 777-300ER pro­gram was launched, entering service in 2004, Boeing knew internally that this was the beginning of the end of the 747. Some argued then to discon­tinue the airplane. Others said the prestigious airplane was too valuable to give up.

The freighter, with its unique nose-loading door, was needed in only five percent of the service, and the value proposition of the big freighter was declining. The twin-engine 777-200LR was cheaper to buy, cheaper to op­erate, and, in most cases, better sized for the demand. All too often, loads are directional anyway. With the huge amount of belly capacity in the 777-300ER, A330-300s, and forthcoming neos, the 787 and the A350s, the 747-8F was a hard sell, but it wasn’t impossible. As long as Boeing was going to build the 747-8F, it didn’t cost that much more to develop and build the 747-8I passenger model.

Still, the 8I was a “tweener” airplane. It fell between the 777 and the A380. Had Boeing not encountered two years of delays with the -8, it might have had better sales success given the two-year delay of the A380. Boeing, however, squandered this in the overhang that the 787 debacle had on the 747-8 development and EIS.

In February 2009, The Everett Herald, Flight Global, and Leeham News each reported that Boeing was reviewing the program.

“Boeing is reassess­ing the viability of the 747-8I,” Leeham News wrote. “But we are told this reassessment is a full program analysis that includes whether to continue development of the freighter, with production at a slower rate than origi­nally envisioned; to cancel the passenger version, or to cancel the program entirely.” Cancelation was unlikely once the program was underway, and Boeing ultimately continued.

In its 10-Q filing with the SEC for the second quarter of 2016 Boeing ac­knowledged the end was on the horizon. “Lower-than-expected demand for large commercial passenger and freighter aircraft and slower-than-expect­ed growth of global freight traffic has continued to drive market uncer­tainties, pricing pressures, and fewer orders than anticipated. As a result, during the second quarter of 2016, we canceled previous plans to return to a production rate of 1.0 aircraft per month beginning in 2019,” Boeing wrote.

Boeing wrote off $1.19 billion in the quarter. It previously wrote off $885 million and $70 million during the second half of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016. “If we are unable to obtain sufficient orders and/or market, pro­duction and other risks cannot be mitigated, we could record additional losses that may be material, and it is reasonably possible that we could de­cide to end production of the 747,” wrote Boeing. The company gave up on the -8I but limped along with the freighter at a rate of one-half per month until July 2020, when it announced the last one would be delivered in 2022.

A380 vs 747-500/600

The campaign to launch the A380 at Singapore Airlines pitted the A380 against the Boeing 747-500/600. This was a stretch concept with added range and other improvements. The -500 would seat 462 passengers. The -600 would seat 548 passengers. It was Airbus super-salesman John Leahy against Ray Conner, at the time Boeing’s vice president of sales for Asia/Pacific.

“Singapore was the kingpin of the widebodies at that point,” Conner re­called. “Whatever Singapore did, everybody would follow. I’m down there with my team bringing in the 747-500, -600. We were just working the heck out of this thing. I’ve got a letter from Phil Condit that says, ‘If you guys buy the airplane, we’ll launch the airplane,’ because we hadn’t launched it yet. Then we start getting down [to] the short strokes, and it’s down to best and final. I’m sitting in the hotel, having lunch and there is Leahy over there with his team getting ready to go in to go to Singapore.”

With Leahy was Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard. “He was bringing in all the big guns,” Conner said. “It’s just me and my team, and I’m down there go­ing, ‘Hey, it would be good if we could get [CEO] Phil [Condit] here if we could get Alan Mulally [CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes] or Seddik Belyaman [head of sales] here.’” But Conner couldn’t get them. “I just can’t seem to get any­body to come down there.”

As part of any campaign, Boeing and Airbus would evaluate the perfor­mance of the competing aircraft and commercial terms to the extent they knew them through the customer. The two OEMs would denigrate and dis­miss the opposing airplane and offer. “We were telling Singapore how the A380 was going to be heavy. We were taking the typical Boeing engineering approach to all these different things, putting all these risks of this big beast on the table,” Conner said. “Singapore used that to throw these risks back at John, and John just said, ‘Well, fine. If that happens, this is what we’ll do.’ Leahy basically took all the risks away that they kept bringing up to him.”

In a sense, Boeing helped sell the A380 to Singapore through this ap­proach. “In typical John fashion, he used our sales pitch against us and took all those things that would be of concern away. He gave Singapore a deal that they couldn’t refuse, or that we were unwilling to match at that point,” said Conner. The airline chose to order the A380.

Conner didn’t come away empty-handed, however. He sold Singapore more 747-400s to bridge the airline to the A380s. Conner thinks Boeing executives really didn’t want to launch the -500/600 anyway. There wasn’t a new engine for the -500/600, which was needed for the larger airplane and for better economics. The wing would be tweaked but not new. And the concept for what later became known as the 787 was already floating around within Boeing.

Conner came home from Singapore devastated. He failed to launch the 747-500/600. Leahy succeeded in launching the A380. When he sat down with Condit, however, the CEO didn’t chastise him. Rather, Condit said don’t worry about it; we have something better. Boeing had two concepts perco­lating. One was the speedy Sonic Cruiser. The other was a traditional tube-and-wing design, but much more efficient than any airliner flying then.

The Sonic Cruiser was a futuristic-looking airplane. It had similarities to a Super Sonic Transport, which was natural since it was a Mach 0.98 con­cept. Its economics were pegged as equal to the Boeing 767. The chief attri­bute was speed, nearly 150 mph faster than the long-haul airliners in use.

The tube-and-wing airplane was the concept that became the 787. At this stage, it was labeled the 7E7.

Air Wars, The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing

The excerpts above are just a small part of the story of global combat between Airbus and Boeing. Air Wars looks at 35 years of sales and product strategy moves by the duopoly. It follows the career of John Leahy, who was in Airbus sales for 33 years and the head of sales for more than two decades. Leahy was credited by many as the key to Airbus’ success, though this is a simplistic assessment. Leahy likes to point out that he and his team lost 40% to 60% of the sales depending on the measuring point.

Air Wars begins with the big gamble by Leahy to win a huge order from American Airlines for the A320 family. American at the time was an exclusive customer of Boeing. This deal caused Boeing to launch a re-engined version of the 737, which was branded the MAX.

Air Wars then takes a step back to introduce Leahy while in college and a taxi driver in New York City. From there, the book reports one sales campaign after another, with wins and losses by Airbus and Boeing. The book concludes with the MAX grounding, the COVID pandemic, and finally, the retirement of Leahy, Conner, and other key players.





























Air Wars is available in paperback and eBook form at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble.


28 Comments on “Pontifications: The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen.

  1. I loved to work on the 744. Because it’s so large, so many crew, galleys, lavs, resting areas, hidden places. so many options, alternatives, modern & legacy design and technology. I didn’t have insight in the overall operating costs at that stage..

    • It’s a lovely plane, and I’m sorry its production is stopping. Only
      flew on one once (CPH-LAX I think), but it’s stuck in my memory for sure.

    • It truly was something that will never be replicated.

      I was lucky and was flying a lot in its heyday. To and from Hawaii a number of times, off to Taiwan and then Back once.

      I got a rear seat and got to experience dutch roll once!

      I got hauled off because I was accused of writing a bad check (they lost the check I had written 3 weeks before and then hauled me off because the account was closed). Probably would get arrested now as I cussed the Purser up one side and down the other. I was not feeling good and broke out with Flu on the way to the West coast.

  2. I was at that time (and still am) an SQ Gold flyer and I was actively avoiding the 747-400. Once I flew the 777-200ER on SIN-KIX in the late 90’s, that was my favourite plane in the SQ fleet. The comfort was way beyond the 747. Later I had to go to Frankfurt a lot and for a long time one flight (SIN-FRA-JFK and return) was a 747-400 and the other flight was a 777-300ER. After my first trip where I had the 744 one way and the 777 return, I decided I would never fly the 747 again. The additional orders from SQ were not 747-400s to bridge the A380s, but they were the 747-400ERFs which in a few years will be replaced by the A350F. SQ will always have a dual supplier strategy as that is the norm for the Singapore Government and any Singapore Government linked company.

    • Yea I flew to Taiwan in Cattle class and it was tight. Kind of, its not the airplane is the packing of seats. Granted I was young and tough and no issue and had a delightful seat companion on one side.

      Going back, I had First Class and 3 seats to sleep on. Just depended on the ticket. My company did First class if they could get it, just the luck of the draw.

      Also flew and A300 on that trip and it left a good impression though it was also packed (flew nice and had good power which is all I really want though I was not keen on two engines over the Pacific)

  3. I think at least in the 747’s early days, second tier airlines bought it for both its prestige and its range, not because they needed the capacity. Air Lingus or SAS, for example.

    Perhaps this gave the program a little “rocket assist” off the blocks and distorted the business realities of the program.

    If the DC-10-30 had come out contemporarily with the 747, would The Queen have been stuck as a princess?

    • I feel similarly.
      Does anyone have data on typical load factors for 747s in the 1970s/80s/90s?
      I suspect that they were (a lot) lower than subsequent smaller widebodies.
      Range was probably the deciding factor for early operators — and they just had to put up with empty seats.

      • Bryce:

        What I can say was that if you flew in cattle class it was tight. Most of my trips on a 747 were that. More legroom.

        Flights were mid 70s to mid 80s for the last one.

        If you were lucky like I was and got First Class? Yipee.

        The trip to Taiwan was Air China 747SP, it was a Filipino holiday and the planes were all packed.

      • Empty seats were due to “not enough customers” …
        I travelled occasionaly in almost full flights

  4. Scott, awesome thought provoking article. I think the second paragraph really says it all about the great 747.

    Where I live in Puget Sound is under the SeaTac departure southbound path, they are about 5,000 ft altitude so the noise isn’t too bad. But I always know when those 747’s are heading over and it’s a beautiful sight and sound! I’m like a kid running outside to watch them.

    Many of that have flown on and worked on these amazing jets take solace that the ones recently delivered will be around for many years to come.
    Boeing did a great job with keeping this program going for as long it did. Nothing will ever ever match it again.
    Long live the Queen!

  5. In the so called second tier airlines is Aerolinas Argentina with one SP model to join Buenos Aires to Europe … that distance at that time was reserved to 747 SP
    I enjoyed travelling in an almost empty airliner in Economy one could use middle row as a bed in that respect, it was modern

    • Goforrid

      …”If the DC-10-30 had come out contemporarily with the 747, would The Queen have been stuck as a princess?”…
      Since Douglas had merged with Mc Donnel, the fate of the DC10 and the plane marker was sealed. On several occasions Mc Donnel Douglas had procrastinated to launch several variants from the DC10 airframe in Twin engine, DC-XX (Big DC10), Double-Decker MD12, Light-Twin MD20 …

      They had engineers and creative people but the bean counters didn’t want to put money on the table to invest in the future.

      They also had interesting technological tanks, among other things on the Blended Wing Body, from which Boeing inherited the study until 2018…

      They let Boeing eat them and let Airbus take over the market

    • Goforrid

      …”If the DC-10-30 had come out contemporarily with the 747, would The Queen have been stuck as a princess?”…

      Since Douglas had merged with Mc Donnel, the fate of the DC10 and the plane maker was sealed. On several occasions Mc Donnel Douglas had procrastinated to launch several variants from the DC10 airframe in Twin engine, DC-XX (Big DC10), Double-Decker MD12, Light-Twin MD20 …

      They had engineers and creative people but the bean counters didn’t want to put money on the table to invest in the future.

      They also had interesting technological tanks, among other things on the Blended Wing Body, from which Boeing inherited the study until 2018…

      They let Boeing eat them and let Airbus take over the market

      When Boeing still had a little jealousy for itself at that time, they had always scrupulously improved the 747. The derivative 747-SP was the most amazing.
      Well sold in the Middle East, it was the precursor of the 777-300ER for nearly 15 years …

      • @Checklist

        Right you are on all points! Especially about Mickey D.

        My first 747 flight was on an Iran Air SP in 1977 JFK – Tehran. One very long flight.
        My second flight was a Pan Am 747 that bravely came into Tehran in February 1979 to evacuate out us last Americans out the country….. my best flight ever!

  6. I know it would be a bit of an engineering challenge, but I bet there is a chance that a front opening on the 777X freighter could be designed. The whole cockpit would have to swing, but with more electrics nowadays, maybe it would be possible. It could still be a selling point for some buyers.

  7. It could be interesting comparing cost of a 747-400 vs 777-300ER on LHR-LAX with 97% load factor. Think the 777 wins easily and hence the 747 became history. A similar comparison of a 787-9 vs A350-1000 vs 777-300ER might be a tighter fight betweem the 787 vs. A350

      • Normally in history you had a 2 engine airplane like the DC-3 and then a 4 engine bigger version with more range like DC-4. Similar with the 767 and 747 sharing the same engines with the 767 getting a tad more thrust by time. So when the 777 twin came the earth was too small for a 4 engine version as it already had enough payload/range. Airbus A340-600, A380 and 747-8 soon found out and with engine maintenance cost creeping up 5-7%/year for decades and the biggest engines had the best fuel consumption the 4 engine aircrafts became dinosaurs of a gone era. It does not have to be that way forever as if you design efficient long range engines that stay on wing for the life of the airframe (approx. 80 000hrs/7000 cycles) you could benefit from having 4 engines.

        • 4 engines were killed when regulators accepted 240 minutes to reach emergency airport

  8. I had always hoped Emirates had made a massive order for the 747, not the A-380. I feel it would have garnered more orders as it is better suited for more routes than the A-380. Still over 1500 frames is quite a testimony to the success of the 747.

  9. There is a 747 option that was quite popular. It is the ”
    “Cargo Nose Delete” option. A cargo nose configured 41 section,built with all the windows and seat tracks necessary for passenger service, could be ordered with all the actuators, lines, locks and hinges delivered with the airplane in a box for cargo conversion at a later date. That’s one of the things people look for when they do 747-400 P2Fs….. As far as a swing nose 777x, it will never happen. Without even thinking of the weight and complexity that would add to the aircraft, there is no advantage loading through the nose as a 777X cannot accommodate out sized cargo. Over 97% of all cargo flying can load through the side cargo doors.

    Another option you could purchase was the #5 engine mount. Before large cargo aircraft made shipping AOG engines easy, 747s and DC-10s has provisions for hanging an engine in a faired pod under the wing.



    • And for outsize cargo, AB is now offering the Beluga fleet — in addition to what the Antonovs can carry.

  10. Wasn’t the 747 the Plan B in case the B2707 sales took off? They could be converted to cargo aircraft. Oh what a future that would have been.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *