Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 April 2015

It could soon be the end of an era for Boeing's iconic 747. The jet, which first took to the skies in 1970, changed the way the world travelled. The four-engine, part-double-decker became known as the jumbo jet and made it so the masses could get airborne. The economies of scale that the 747 provided made flying considerably more affordable.

The 747 far outlasted many of its peers. And was only ever truly shown up in the jumbo jet game when Airbus’ A380 took to the tarmac. A true double-decker, the A380 really was the next big thing, with four engines and the capacity for 800 passengers (if airlines really wanted to keep things tight). The jet just celebrated its 10-year anniversary this week.

Now, Airbus and Boeing are faced with an uncertain future for the largest aircraft in their fleets. Orders for the behemoths are dwindling and so is confidence that the world needs them. Boeing has even had to reduce its rate of production on the 747. So, is this the end of the jumbo jet era?

I often get asked how big planes will become, or how much faster. The truth is, there’s a good chance that we won’t see bigger or faster anytime soon.

In the late 1960s the Concorde was breaking the sound barrier and leading everyone to believe that by 2015 most of our travel would be done well above the speed of sound. That was not the case; the delta-winged supersonic plane last flew passengers more than 10 years ago.

Sure, it’s safe to say that the price of fuel killed the Concorde, but it’s also fair to point a finger at things such as lie-flat seats. While they don’t get you across the Atlantic in 3.5 hours, they do get you across well rested. Bigger jets, such as the Boeing 747, gave us more floor space and better onboard amenities. This trumped any need for speed.

While size was the 747’s advantage for many years, it now seems to be the aircraft’s Achilles heel. We’re at a point in time when jets are lighter and more efficient than they used to be, which means they don’t need to carry as much fuel to get them as far. Smaller, relatively lighter jets can now get even farther and this efficiency means they can employ the same cushy seats that only 747s could previously boast. This seems to be the problem for both the newest versions of the 747 and Airbus’ A380. Order numbers for both are low and I don’t see that changing.

It’s sad. Nothing quite beats an ocean crossing in the quiet nose of a Qantas 747. Still, it may be time for us to bid our four-engine friends goodbye.

Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.

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