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The 747 Flies Into The Sunset

I have traveled on commercial airliners for a long time – since I left home for college in 1974 – but the Boeing 747 has been the undisputed “queen of the skies” for even longer.

That is a remarkable achievement for any sort of technology, but consider: A color television purchased in January 1970, when Pan Am launched the first 747 service between New York and London, could not even pick up today’s digital signals, let alone use them to render what we would consider an acceptable picture. A computer with less processing power than today’s washing machines guided the Apollo 11 capsule to the moon.

The Oscar-winning disaster movie “Airport,” based on the 1968 novel by Arthur Hailey, came out in the summer of 1970. Unlike its sequels and many subsequent films that featured the 747, the film was set on an older model, the pioneering Boeing 707 (which was the aircraft I took on my first flight when I left for college in Montana). But the film presaged the imminent arrival of the big-jet era. Airport manager Mel Bakersfield (played by Burt Lancaster) grapples with a politician who wants to appease prominent local residents by curtailing airport operations. Bakersfield warns that expansion is inevitable and vital.

“You better start looking ahead a few years,” he advises Commissioner Ackerman (played by Larry Gates). “What are we gonna do about these jumbos that seat 500 passengers? And how are we going to get the people to and from the airport?”

The 747 inaugurated the jumbo era. It was quickly joined by Lockheed’s L-1011 and McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10, both of which are long gone from commercial aviation. The 747 outlasted both of them by decades. In recent years it has even held its own against the massive Airbus A380, the only passenger plane to exceed the 747’s capacity.

Today the last few 747s continue to fly, but their days are numbered. United’s last 747 flight will depart on Nov. 7. Two Delta 747s made a final, impromptu domestic appearance assisting with Hurricane Irma evacuation in Orlando, but the airline expects to replace all its 747s with Airbus A350s by the end of 2017. The farewells have been fond: United reportedly said goodbye with a “party flight” on the aircraft’s last scheduled domestic run, between Chicago and San Francisco. Delta’s atmosphere on its final trip between LAX and Detroit was similar, at least in the upper deck. (Economy class had more passengers trying to sleep on the redeye.) By 2018, domestic flights on 747s will be a thing of the past in the United States. And foreign carriers may not be far behind.

As of this summer, around 500 passenger 747s remained in service worldwide, but Boeing has said frankly that the demand for big passenger aircraft simply is not there. Smaller planes can fly farther on less fuel and are easier for airlines to fill profitably. Going forward, the 747 will mainly carry cargo for the likes of UPS.

Since the first 747 arrived in 1970, Boeing has delivered more than 1,500 of the jumbo jets, and nearly four out of five were passenger models. At the time the aircraft made its debut, the 747 could carry two and a half times as many passengers as its predecessor, the 707. It was born near the end of air travel’s glamor era, and the famous upper level originally housed fancy lounges for first-class passengers.

Deregulation in the late 1970s and ‘80s, however, prompted a shift to more bare-bones travel. Airlines began reconfiguring planes to increase seating, especially in economy class. Certain Asian carriers requested even higher capacities for domestic routes between major cities, packing up to 550 passengers into, essentially, an airborne version of a commuter train.

While the 747 helped transform international air travel during the ‘70s and ‘80s, bringing international flights into the reach of everyday passengers, the emergence of smaller but still-sizeable twin-engine aircraft, and the introduction of two-member crews – no more need for a navigator – enabled airlines to expand their route networks with appropriately-sized aircraft.

Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president of marketing, said at the Paris Air Show in January 2017 that while demand for aircraft overall looks healthy, the 747’s time as a passenger plane is winding down. “We don’t see much demand for really big airplanes,” Tinseth said. A small but prestigious exception: Air Force One jets have been heavily modified 747s since the presidency of George H.W. Bush, and Boeing will supply the next round in a few years.

I have only flown on 747s on a handful of occasions. Most of those remaining in service fly long, over-ocean routes, which are not how I do most of my traveling. And today even on those routes there are more comfortable options, such as Boeing’s 777 (introduced in the 1990s) and its more modern 787 “Dreamliner,” as well as their competitor the Airbus A350. None of these options force between 400 and 500 people to board and disembark an aircraft all at once, either, which is another obvious advantage. These aircraft also burn much less fuel than the 747, and are suitable for long-haul domestic flights as well as international routes.

Every reign must end, even for the most beloved of queens. I’ll miss the old girl when she finally goes out of service. Maybe I will see that familiar hump in the forward fuselage on a few freight carriers and spare a thought to the days in my youth when the 747 was the future of aviation.

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