Boeing has delivered its last 747 jumbo jet, more than a half-century after production of the plane began.
Although many 747s are still in use — and will probably remain so for decades — the last delivery reflects a growing industry shift from bulky four-engine planes to more cost-efficient twin-engine models.
Boeing delivered its final 747 jumbo jet on Jan. 31 as thousands of workers looked on. Former flight test engineer Thomas H. Gray described the moment. (Video: Reuters)
Boeing’s success with the 747 — the company has now delivered 1,574 models and racked up more than 118 million flight hours worldwide — began with a failure. After losing a military contract for a large cargo plane, Boeing adapted its freight design as a large civilian aircraft. It found a willing buyer in Pan American Airways, which ordered 25 of the planes in April 1966. The new twin-aisle design lowered the per-seat cost and doubled passenger capacity. Since then, the humpbacked, wide-body 747, affectionately known as the “Queen of the Skies” has revolutionized air travel, enabling longer, safer, more affordable flights.
The 747 led to a “dramatic increase in international air travel” by reducing costs, said Scott Miller, a pilot and a lecturer in San José State University’s aviation department, said in an email. “But that won’t be the 747’s legacy. Its legacy will be the timeless majesty of the aircraft itself,” Miller said.
“In aviation, everybody can probably tell you two things: the first time they flew anything and the first time they flew on a 747,” said Dave Kircher, general manager of a General Electric production line that manufactures engines that went on the Boeing aircraft. “I’ll never forget being on that upper deck of a 747. It’s just iconic,” he said, according to a company news site.
The announcement of the last 747 delivery sparked tributes among aviation enthusiasts. To mark the occasion, flight-tracking site Flightradar24 noted the oldest and youngest airborne 747s at that moment, one delivered in 1974 and the other in 2022.
John Dietrich, president and chief executive of Atlas Air, the cargo-carrying airliner and last customer to receive a 747, said at a ceremony commemorating the delivery that he and his company were honored to continue operating the aircraft. Actor John Travolta, a pilot who has flown the 747, also attended the ceremony at the company’s production facilities north of Seattle on Tuesday, saying he “had to be here in person.”
But Boeing’s decision to halt production of the plane comes as airlines look for more fuel-efficient planes that can reduce costs and slow emissions that contribute to climate change.
After taking orders of 195 of the planes in the 1960s, Boeing’s sales increased in the following decades, according to figures on its website. During the 1970s, the company received orders for 349 of the planes. Boeing then took more than 900 orders in the 1980s and 90s. But demand has slowed since. Boeing has received orders for six 747s since 2020.
Instead, airlines have been ordering the more cost-effective twin-engine 737s and 777s. Having more engines means increased power, allowing heavier payloads and longer distances. But having more engines also generally means higher maintenance costs for the planes’ owners in fuel and repairs.
Other methods of cost-saving for airlines, such as increasing the number of passengers on a single flight, are also reaching their natural limits, according to McKinsey, the consulting firm. Seat density — defined as “the percentage of actual seats in an aircraft cabin compared to the maximum” seats the plane is certified for — increased from 82 percent in 2005 to 88 percent in 2019, according to McKinsey.
Airlines including United, Delta, Australia’s Qantas and British Airways have been gradually retiring their fleets of 747s in recent years. The most recent deliveries of the Boeing 747’s passenger plane to a major airline occurred in 2017, when three 747s went to Korean Air.
Miller, a pilot who formerly worked ground services at San Francisco International Airport, said he never flew a 747 but recalled with pride working with them at the airport.
“When a 747 passes by, people stop and watch,” he added. “Takeoffs or landings are events, much as the docking or undocking of a cruise ship a century earlier.”