Mourning the Slow Demise of the 747

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I remember the first time I ever flew a Boeing 747. It was on the upper deck of a Singapore Airlines 747 in business class (which has since stopped flying these whale jets altogether), and I can still feel the rush I got climbing those steps to one of the most exclusive experiences in the air. At that moment, it was clear why this enormous feat of engineering and technical skill was dubbed the “Queen of the Skies.”

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Iconic Pan Am 747- never got to try one of these birds

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of flying these big birds across continents and oceans in some pretty unique circumstances, like being right at the front of the cone in row 1 of both British Airways first class and Lufthansa business class, and I think that my all-time favorite flight on one was when I got to fly Lufthansa’s new 747-400 First Class last summer, which has just eight seats – or more specifically seats plus beds – on the upper deck.

Flying in style: Lufthansa first class on the 747 upper deck Frankfurt-Miami
One of my all-time favorite flights was in Lufthansa’s top-deck 747 first class.

But an AP story today said that the days of double-deck flying aboard Boeing’s flagship aircraft might be drawing to a close, noting that Boeing has had its orders for new 747’s cut twice in the last six months to just 18 for each of the next two years and it hasn’t sold any new orders this year at all. That’s compared to a peak in 1990 when Boeing sold 122 of them in a single year. All told, Boeing produced over 1,400 of the planes before the most recent redesign of the 747-8 in 2011. So far, airlines have ordered just 31 of the 747-8’s compared to 979 of the more nimble, next-generation long-haul 787 Dreamliner.

There are a few reasons for this. When the 747 was first introduced, it was a technical marvel that was able to fly farther, longer and faster than any other commercial jet, but now Boeing and its main rival Airbus are able to produce smaller planes that can fly the same distances using much less fuel since they only need two engines instead of four. In 1988, the US government began to allow airlines to fly more advanced twin-engine planes over oceans as their technology became adequate for longer-distance routes and planes like the 777 and A330 began to dominate these markets.

Stairway to heaven?
There’s no better rush than climbing the stairs to the top deck.

In economic terms, while a 747 filled to capacity can hold 560 passengers, the cost per-passenger of operating it goes up very fast the fewer seats that are actually filled, and with gas prices at a plateau, unsold seats can mean big losses for airlines. Their size is also a huge handicap in that not every market or route – even major international ones – have enough demand to justify flying one of these aircraft on it, or if they do, airlines have preferred flying several smaller jets over the course of a day rather than one or two large jets in order to give passengers more choices and more options to purchase tickets.

Don’t feel too bad for Boeing, though. It brushes off the impact of the 747 order downsizing and its stock is actually at an all-time high, gaining a whopping 74% this year according to the AP story. That’s thanks to orders of its other popular models like the 737, 777 and the persistently troubled but still popular 787. Not only that, but new versions of the 777 should hold up to 400 passengers, which might make the 747 completely obsolete.

I’m still sorry to see these double deckers go. To me, like a lot of people, they still symbolize the glamor of the jet age when it suddenly became possible to fly anywhere on the globe at the drop of a hat on one of these gleaming, rocket-like man-made marvels. Still, after experiences aboard newer aircraft like the 777-300ER and 787, there’s plenty to enjoy about flying, so it won’t keep me down for too long!

What do you think about the 747? Share your thoughts and memories below.

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