Boeing is ending production of the 747

Jul 2, 2020

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The last Boeing 747 will roll out of the Everett, Washington, plant in about two years, ending the more than five-decade production run of the legendary airplane known as the Queen of the Skies. It’s a momentous decision in the history of aviation: the airplane that made long-haul travel into a mass phenomenon is officially being terminated.

According to Bloomberg News, which cited “wording changes in financial statements” by the company, Boeing has decided to end production of the 747 and close the assembly line when the last remaining orders are filled. There are currently 16 outstanding orders, all for the 747-8F cargo version. Boeing is producing the plane at a very slow pace, only six a year — a trickle compared for example to the 787, with 168 a year.

“At a build rate of half an airplane per month, the 747-8 program has more than two years of production ahead of it in order to fulfill our current customer commitments,” a Boeing spokesperson said in an email to TPG. “We will continue to make the right decisions to keep the production line healthy and meet customer needs.”

At the current production rate, it will take 32 months to assemble the remaining Jumbo Jets on order. So the last one will be produced in early 2023, if UPS and the Russian cargo carrier Volga Dnepr, the only remaining customers, take all their orders.

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The first 747 rolled out of the Everett plant outside Seattle in 1968. It was the biggest passenger jet ever, a title it would cede only in the mid-2000s to the Airbus A380.

(Photo by AFP/Getty Images)
The first Boeing 747 in 1968 (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

 

The A380 is not faring much better than the 747. The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the retirement of the two giants, which carry far more passengers than are willing to fly these days. With four engines, both burn more fuel than the Boeing 777 and 787 and the Airbus A350, the twinjets taking their place in many airline fleets.

But while the A380 has been a commercial flop, with just 250 produced when Airbus decided to shut down the line, the 747 has been a runaway success. The production tally stands at about 1,550 so far and, while the big bird isn’t bringing in profits lately — in fact Boeing has lost $40 million per 747 since 2016, according to an analyst cited by Bloomberg — it has historically made a lot of money for the company, and for the airlines that operated it.

At TPG, we have flown untold amounts of miles on the Queen of the Skies, in every class of service — from the rarefied atmosphere of first class on Koreanair, to the classic elegance of British Airways Club World business on the upper deck to economy class on a Qantas 747 to Australia. We’ve seen 747s off on their retirement flights with United and Delta; we’ve followed along as a Jumbo Jet left airline service to become a test plane for Rolls-Royce engines; and we’ve even gone to see 747s get recycled for parts and aluminum. Quite simply, no other machine stirs the feelings of enthusiasts like a 747. And that’s not only true of AvGeeks: in its 50 years, the 747 has turned into a pop-culture icon, the very image of jet travel.

Even with production ending, you will still be able to fly 747s for years. While none remain in service with scheduled U.S. carriers, and several airlines overseas are grounding theirs forever, you have several options left to ride on the Queen of the Skies. Most of the remaining 747s are the 747-400 version, produced beginning in the 1990s, while some are the more recent 747-8, which has now become the final model to be made.

Most 747s flying these days, however, are freighters. A check of flight-tracking site Flightradar24 on Thursday showed that all but two 747-8s airborne in the world were cargos. The passenger birds were both Lufthansa flights, one from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, part of the bare-minimum network currently linking the two sides of the Atlantic — and the other a flight home to Germany from Bangkok.

Screen shot from Flightradar24
Screen shot from Flightradar24

 

The last passenger-carrying 747 in the world may end up being the most prestigious of them all: Air Force One, carrying the president of the United States. Two 747s are in the process of being converted to a special military version known as VC-25B, taking the place of the current VC-25A, another modified 747 version. Judging by the 30-year lifespans of the Boeing jets used as Air Force One before it, we can assume that the VC-25B will be flying into the 2050s. The last of the queens may turn out to be the one carrying a president.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy

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