The Boeing 747 inaugurated the age of the jumbo jet and democratised air travel. With its production now ended forever, what will take its place?
The factory in Everett, Washington, where Boeing built the 747 for more than 50 years is so big that clouds used to form inside above the production line. Some say that you would occasionally see a rainbow. Plenty of legends have emerged from this building, which is still the world’s largest by volume. Not least among them was the 747 itself, modern aviation’s most important aircraft, once described by Norman Foster as “heroic” in scale.
Over the past 20 years, however, the drive for greater fuel efficiency and smaller planes has made the jumbo jet, with its four huge engines, a relic. In January the last 747 ever to be built rolled out of the factory. Though this plane won’t disappear completely from our skies for many years – cargo carriers such as Atlas Air, which bought the last one, will give it a long afterlife – only a handful of airlines still fly passenger services on 747s. To mark the end of production, Boeing invited thousands of people to watch the last one being delivered, including the world’s press and many of the design engineers who built the original 747, referred to in-house as “The Incredibles”.
It was the kind of sendoff more associated with beloved film stars than an aeroplane. Tributes poured in from celebrities and ceos around the world; Boeing bigwigs extolled the virtues of its design against a backdrop of vintage footage; actor John Travolta, who is also a licenced pilot, came onstage to pay homage. When the hangar doors peeled back to reveal the last 747, accompanied by sad yet triumphant rock music, there were a few misty eyes. “Nowadays aeroplanes are all brain,” said one Argentine journalist. “But the 747 had heart.”
When the plane took off a day later, its flight path traced the shape of a crown and the numbers seven, four and seven. There was a strong sense of nostalgia for a bygone golden age of aviation. But what inspiration can the grand vision of the jumbo jet offer today?
“I was carried through this factory to see the 747 as a baby, which you weren’t supposed to do,” says Alicia Amble, granddaughter of Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, who led the original 4,500-strong design team. Amble was born in 1969, the year of the 747’s test flight, for which engineers would sneak into the factory through the night to keep working on the first jet. Sutter envisioned an aircraft built with an understanding of the needs of the people who would be onboard. Its design was informed by extensive interviews with passengers, pilots and crew to find out how they wanted to fly.
“The 747 introduced the twin-aisle wide-body, the overhead bin, in-flight entertainment – things that we take for granted but were innovations then,” says Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s senior historian. “The team was very focused on the passenger experience.” For that reason, the 747 was twice as big as any commercial plane built before it and capable of transporting more than 400 passengers.
When it made its debut for Pan Am in 1970, it had twin aisles and a cabin as spacious as a living room, with room for a cocktail lounge, and a distinctive hump that would eventually serve as First Class on most carriers. “They took us stewardesses up in a cherry picker and photographed us seated on the wheel well, lined up like dolls,” says Cheryl Morrow, who crewed twa’s first 747 flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1970. She recalls trying to create ice cream in the galley at 35,000ft, using dry ice and crème de menthe. “It was exciting to be on a plane that large.”
Yet the 747 was also the swan song of aviation’s golden era. More seats meant cheaper tickets and within a few years of its first takeoff the 747 had become the bridge for millions of people to explore the world. It kicked off mass travel and the so-called spacious age soon gave way to coach class and the big squeeze.
“When the 747 was introduced, people talked about air travel,” says Carsten Spohr, the Lufthansa Group’s ceo. “But in the decades since, too many in this industry have moved towards air transport, which is very different. People need to be hosted again.” The German carrier flies more passenger- carrying 747s than any other airline, in part, he says, because it has the space to deliver the kind of service that Lufthansa wants to offer.
The pandemic was expected to hasten the demise of big jets such as the 747 but Lufthansa already has orders in for the 777-9x, which is even longer, with space for as many as 425 passengers. The 777-9x is considered the inheritor of the jumbo’s legacy; Boeing just needs to deliver it, having delayed the first planes to 2025.
“When it comes to the long-range product, Boeing and Airbus have what a carrier like us needs,” says Spohr. “But when you think about the innovation that went on in the 1960s and 1970s, it makes you realise that we need more of it in propulsion and airframe design. The pipeline for both [Boeing and Airbus] is not as full as we would like. What will be the next mid-range aeroplane after the a320, which first flew in 1987?” Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s ceo, has said that no new planes will be launched until “the middle of the next deccade”. In the meantime, the old Everett factory will build the narrow-body 737 Max, as well as the 767, 777 and 777x.
Nevertheless, the Queen of the Skies continues to inspire. Seattle-based design consultancy Teague has created interiors for many of Boeing’s iconic aircraft, including the 787 Dreamliner, and collaborated with the firm on the cabin architecture of the 777x. Teague’s principal futurist, Devin Liddell, says that, with this latest plane, the objective was to recapture the wonder of flight that the vast 747 embodied. “Connecting with the horizon and the sky is important for passenger experience and wellbeing,” says Liddell. “The windows on the 777x are significantly larger than usual. So even if you’re in a seat that doesn’t directly look out of the window, you still have a sense of the horizon. The bins and the lighting are also configured to create a feeling of headspace.”
In true Joe Sutter style, Teague has built a network of frequent flyers called “the Flying Aces”, which it consults for intel on what passengers and crew need from their aircraft. “We talk about loyalty in aviation but what we actually mean is love,” says Liddell. “We want people to love these things – and people really loved the 747.”
From the cockpit
Mark Vanhoenacker flies the Boeing 787 for British Airways and is the author of Skyfaring and Imagine a City. Here, he gives a pilot’s-eye view of the jumbo’s legacy.
What is it like to pilot a 747?
The aircraft was a dream to fly. One of my instructors was fond of saying, “Mark, it’s just a big Cessna.” It was surely the last non-fly-by-wire airliner that I’ll ever pilot. Early on in our training, pilots are taught that aeronautical engineers must balance two opposing qualities: manoeuvrability and stability. The team that gave us the 747 got it right.
What does the end of its production mean to you?
It’s sad but it’s hard to imagine a more illustrious run. It had such an important role in bringing people and places together that I wonder whether historians will someday rank it alongside the internet in terms of how it shaped the world. It brought people together. Its status as a cultural shorthand for graceful enormity and a more accessible world is assured.
With its shapely hump, the jumbo was visually distinctive. Do planes look too alike these days?
The configuration that you see so often at airports now – a slender fuselage and one engine under each wing – offers so many efficiencies and it’ll be with us for decades to come, I suspect. If aircraft today offer an aesthetic improvement over the 747, it’s in the winglets. The Airbus a350 has its wingtip “scimitars”, which are so distinctive and lovely.
What new plane are you most excited about?
I’m looking forward to the 777-x, which will be delivered to airlines from the middle of the decade. In terms of capacity, it’s a true 747 replacement, while offering huge improvements in efficiency and customer experience. And check out its folding wingtips.