Boeing just received the order for the last 747s it will ever make

Jan 12, 2021

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The Queen of the Skies is on her way out.

On Tuesday, Boeing announced that Atlas Air, a worldwide cargo operator, had placed an order for four Boeing 747-8 Freighters. The Chicago-based planemaker also shared the bittersweet news that these four jets would be the last to roll off the 747 production line.

In the announcement, Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplane division said, “Atlas Air began operations 28 years ago with a single 747 and it is fitting that they should receive the last 747 production airplanes, ensuring that the ‘Queen of the Skies’ plays a significant role in the global air cargo market for decades to come.”

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Boeing’s 747-8 was first introduced in 2011, as a quieter and more economical variant compared to its 747-400 predecessor. The fuselage was also stretched, allowing for more seats and cargo capacity.

Despite the initial success of the 747, the -8 variant never became a hit with airlines. There are roughly 140 operating worldwide, with the majority in the freighter version. Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa are the only commercial carriers flying the latest -8 variant in a passenger configuration (though most are grounded currently due to the pandemic).

Altogether, 1,560 aircraft have been produced since launching the jumbo jet more than 50 years ago. When the final four 747s roll out of the factory in 2022, the 747 production line will close for good.

Many observers, particularly aviation enthusiasts worldwide, will be saddened by Tuesday’s news, despite the fact that it was a long time coming.

With the proliferation of modern, fuel-efficient twin-aisle aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, the economics of operating jumbo jets like the 747 no longer make as much sense. In the years leading up to the pandemic, airlines have been shifting to offering nonstop long-haul flights to and from secondary markets using the more modern, economical planes.

Only a handful of major routes, like New York to London, support the demand profile for 350 or more seats per flight. And then the pandemic hit, accelerating the plane’s demise.

Analysts estimate that it could take years for demand to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Plus, with international flying at historic lows, many of the already produced 747s will likely sit in long-term storage for quite some time.

For Boeing, 2020 was a tough year. The planemaker delivered just 157 commercial airplanes, compared to 566 for its chief competitor, Airbus. At least the Federal Aviation Administration recertified the beleaguered 737 MAX in November, allowing the company to resume deliveries of its most popular jet.

More: These are the last 747s you can fly

British Airways, once the world’s largest operator of the 747-400, announced in July 2020 that it would retire all 28 of its remaining 747s by the end of the year.

Post pandemic, it’ll be challenging to find a 747 in commercial service. There are still a few 747 operators left, for those who’d like some more time with the Queen, but the number is dwindling. All U.S.-based carriers retired their 747s in the late 2010s. You’ll still see the plane flying around major airports, however, since it’s quite popular with cargo airlines.

The impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry is far-reaching. When it’s time to travel again, flyers will find themselves on newer planes, with many of the industry’s beloved larger jets sent to the boneyard.

Featured photo courtesy of Boeing

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