What caused the downfall of the Boeing 747?

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The died queen is a time for reflection. So it was when the last 747 jumbo jet – “Queen of the Skies” to legions of fans – rolled off the Boeing production line in Washington state on December 6. Her decline has been slow and somewhat dishonorable. The last plane sold as a passenger transport was in 2017, to Korean Air Lines. After that it was used only for goods, and not many operators wanted it for that. Only 30 747s have been ordered over the past five years. Nevertheless, for those who associate the flat-headed bird with the day of the air, it feels like the end of an era.

PanAm flew the first commercial 747 route in 1970, between JFK airport in New York and London Heathrow. The industry was tightly regulated at the time, limiting which routes airlines could fly. Ticket prices were also controlled. These first jumbos usually carried 366 passengers, compared to around 200 on the Boeing 707s that flew on the transatlantic route in the 1960s. That gave carriers a better chance to turn a profit against those restrictions. But the size would also be a burden. When the oil crisis hit in the mid-1970s, the four-engined gas beasts were a factor in the airline’s heavy losses – especially as the recession meant it was more difficult than fill their seats.

In 1978 America deregulated its aviation market, the largest in the world. That led airlines to develop the “hub-and-talk” business model. With fewer restrictions on the routes they could operate, large aircraft carriers could fly to their home airports, before transferring passengers to smaller planes that took them to their destination; this revolutionized both domestic and international air travel. That allowed operators to serve more airports with fewer planes. The more customers that can be squeezed onto the connecting flights, the better. That was the inspiration for the largest passenger plane in the world at that time. To accommodate this system, in 1988 Boeing launched the 747-400, which could fly up to 8,354 miles (13,450 km) non-stop, about 650 miles more than its predecessor, the 747 -300. It usually carried 416 passengers.

In the 2000s competition they emphasized the jumbo Boeing. In 2007 Airbus, the main European competitor of the American company, launched the A380. This double-decker giant remains the largest passenger plane ever made, with up to 615 seats. For transporters whose main interest was to draw large numbers of people through their hubs, it became the aircraft of choice. A new breed of “super-connector” airlines, such as Emirates and Qatar, built their business models around them. Emirates operates 118 A380s and no 747s. Recently, carriers have been attracted by new ultra-long-haul, highly efficient aircraft such as Airbus’s A350 and Boeing’s own 777. more long distance point to point routes. The 747 could not survive this competitive pincer. The Queen of the Sky was already sick on her deathbed when the epidemic killed her.

But the future of large passenger planes has started to look a little brighter than it did before covid-19 hit, even if the 747 will no longer be among their number. (The A380 may not be long, because of those new long-haul planes.) Air traffic has rebounded from the effects of the pandemic. But analysts believe that in the age of Zoom, leisure travelers will return to the skies more easily than business people. Those on the company’s dime are more likely to pay a premium​​​​to board a flight at a convenient time, which means carriers must offer them more frequent flights on smaller planes. But holidaymakers are more concerned about price than civil departure time. They are also more likely to book well in advance. This makes their use less beneficial, but means that they can be loaded onto larger jets. The Queen may be dead, but the monarchy is alive and well.

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