Boeing’s 747 has transported numerous American presidents around the world in its role as Air Force One. It ferried the Space Shuttle around the country on its back. And it opened the world of affordable long-distance travel to millions. As of 2022, no more will be made.
The reason for the 747’s retirement is the fact that, as a four-engine plane, it’s a fuel gobbler and can’t compete with modern, more efficient two-engine jets like Boeing’s own 787 or the Airbus A350.
Built on a Dare
Airline lore has it that the 747 was born when Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American World Airways, went fishing with Boeing head Bill Allen in Alaska, reports Tech Xplore. Trippe challenged his friend to build a plane twice as big as Boeing’s 707, saying that if Allen had the guts to build it, Pan Am would buy it. In 1969, Pan Am became the first airline to offer commercial flights on the jet, which, with its upper-level first-class cabin, measured 63 feet tall.
The plane was brought to life thanks to the work of 50,000 Boeing employees known as “The Incredibles” in just 16 months and instantly became the world’s largest civilian airplane. It was constructed at an assembly plant in Everett, Washington, in what was the world’s largest building by volume. When pressurized, it held a full ton of air, along with 600 passengers and 3,400 pieces of luggage that could be unloaded in seven minutes (the luggage, not the passengers—if only!).
With its delivery to German airline Lufthansa in 2014, the 747 became the first wide-body aircraft ever to reach the 1,500-unit production milestone.
COVID vs. the Queen
In addition to the economics and environmental concerns about operating the plane, the global pandemic has undoubtedly come into play. Earlier this month, British Air, the biggest remaining operator of 747-400 passenger flights, announced that they would be retiring 31 of the planes, which is about 10% of Boeing’s total fleet. US airlines stopped using the aircraft in 2017.
“It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” said the airline.
Boeing will keep making 747s until 2022, but they will only be used for cargo and military transport—and one very special customer. The airline plans to deliver two 747-8s to the US government for new Air Force One replacements. The planes are bigger and faster than the current 747-200s, yet also more fuel-efficient.