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Are the 747 and A380 Superjumbo Jets on Their Way to the Graveyard?

Jan. 24, 2017
7 min read
A380 Paris Air Show
Are the 747 and A380 Superjumbo Jets on Their Way to the Graveyard?
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If you've ever flown on a superjumbo airplane, you know it's a special trip. There's something about the size, the pure number of passengers, even those stairs inside the cabin leading up to the second deck that makes travel on a 747 or an A380 a flight to remember.

But times have changed, and with improvements in jet engine and carbon fiber composite technology and an ever increasing focus on fuel efficiency, the days of the four-engine plane may be numbered. Two-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A350 can now carry similar passenger loads for nearly the same distance while burning much less fuel, making the larger superjumbo jets a prime target for cost cutting.

So with 747 fleets being retired more quickly than ever before and the A380 potentially on the Airbus chopping block, just how much longer will we have to fly on one of these mammoth aircraft?

747 — The Queen of the Skies

Aircraft types can be difficult to identify by eye, but anyone can recognize the distinctive front "hump" of the Boeing 747 that was originally designed to be used as a first class lounge or for ease in converting the plane to a cargo version. The Queen of the Skies was the first widebody ever produced, and in many ways ushered in the golden age of flying.

Egged on by Pan Am, which was concerned about congestion from the increasing number of small aircraft, the 747 was developed by Boeing in the 1960s and flew its first commercial flight in 1970 with Pan Am taking delivery of the first plane. It remained the largest passenger airliner in service until the introduction of the A380 in 2007.

A 747 was used to carry the Space Shuttle from its landing place in California back to Florida for the next launch. Image courtesy of NASA.

The airplane quickly assumed an iconic status in the world of air travel, and while the 747 has been a difficult lift economically for Boeing from time to time, more than 1,500 have been built to date. The model has also served as Air Force One, the official plane of the President of the United States, for over 25 years since it replaced the 707 in 1990. The most recent commercial version of the plane — the 747-8 — can carry up to 467 passengers in a 3-cabin configuration.

Unfortunately, recent years have not been kind to the popularity of the 747 with airlines. Earlier this month, United announced it was speeding up its timetable for retiring its entire 747 fleet, and the planes will now be out of service by the end of 2017. Delta is the only other US airline still flying the jumbo jet, but it will also retire its planes by the end of this year, leaving only international carriers as purveyors of the plane. As of now, the largest remaining operators are British Airways, Korean Air, and Lufthansa, but even those three airlines combined have only around 100 copies of the aircraft in service.

A British Airways 747-400 in Johannesburg.

So what does the future hold for the 747? Boeing currently only produces six 747s a year, and in July 2016, the aerospace company noted the lack of demand for the plane in its quarterly Form-10Q filing with the SEC. It also stated that the 747 production line could be shut down as early as the third quarter of 2019. While some additional cargo planes have been ordered since that announcement which could extend the timeline by a couple of years, even those orders bring the total backlog to only 28 planes as of the end of 2016, with only 9 planes being of the passenger variety.

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Without renewed interest from passenger airlines or a major uptick in cargo orders, it seems unlikely that production of the 747 will survive much beyond the end of the decade.

A380 — The world's largest passenger jet

If the 747 goes the way of the dodo, Boeing can at least take comfort in the fact that the plane had a good long run. But the same cannot be said of the A380 if a similar fate befalls it.

As the only commercial aircraft with a second deck running the entire length of the aircraft, the A380 is roughly 30% larger in size than the 747. The original A380-800 variant, which despite some modifications over the years remains the only model to date, carries 525 passengers in a three-cabin configuration. Airbus originally also proposed a cargo version of the plane, but the A380F was cancelled before ever being built.

The living room of Etihad's Residence on the A380.

Conceived in the 1990s as a challenger to the 747, Airbus' timing on the A380 was never ideal. At a time when airlines were moving away from the hub-and-spoke system and towards more nonstop point-to-point flights and higher frequencies, the need for smaller aircraft was projected — correctly, as it turned out — to greatly exceed that of larger ones. Even so, seven years and at least $11 billion after launching the program, the first A380 officially entered service with Singapore Airlines in 2007.

Unfortunately for Airbus, since that launch only 319 copies of the plane have been ordered — less than 25% of the lifetime production of the 747 — and of those orders, more than one-third have come from a single carrier: Emirates. While the plane has operated well and gets excellent reviews from passengers for its ability to provide ultra-high end amenities and cabins such as Etihad's Apartment, the costs of the jet have kept many customers away.

No US airline has ordered a single A380, so only international airlines operate the aircraft in the United States. Aside from Emirates with its 92 planes and more on order, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa are the next largest operators with a significantly smaller 19 and 14 planes respectively. Last year Airbus announced two separate production cuts for the aircraft and will be officially reducing its manufacturing rate to just 12 planes a year by 2018.

An onboard shower for Apartment passengers on the A380.

Still, Airbus was finally able to break even on the A380 in 2015 and continues to maintain its commitment to the jet. It is relying heavily on Emirates' interest in the plane, as the Middle Eastern carrier's entire fleet now consists solely of A380s and Boeing 777s. Though Emirates is eager for a more efficient jet engine for the aircraft, it admits at this point it is simply hoping that Airbus keeps manufacturing the A380 for the foreseeable future.

So how much time is left to fly a superjumbo?

Before you get depressed, remember that the prediction business is a fools game, and unforeseen changes can drastically alter the future. This isn't the first time someone has written about the oncoming demise of the superjumbo over the last few years, yet the planes continue to be built and continue to fly. Even if both airplanes were to cease production tomorrow, there remain almost 250 passenger 747s in the air and over 200 A380s in service.

Still, if you've never been on a 747 or an A380, doing it sooner rather than later might be wise. With aerospace technology improving by the day, it seems likely we'll come to a point in the not-too-distant future where the experience of flying on a superjumbo jet is consigned to the dustbin of history.