The team that designed the 747 had been led by Joseph Sutter, who in 2006 wrote the book 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures From a Life in Aviation. At a dinner in his honor in November 2013, the retired Boeing engineer told me that, spilled veal dinners notwithstanding, one quality often overlooked was how well the 747 handled. His team, he said, learned “how to design an airplane that was not only efficient but could handle normal and abnormal circumstances. If there was failure or other difficulties, like weather, it still handles very well.”
Jim Karsh has flown the 747 for 18 of his 28 years as an airline pilot. “It’s a nice-flying airplane,” he says. “It is stable in rough air. It is easy to make an approach in. It’s easy to land.”
Over the years, the designation “Boeing 747” has been applied to 18 versions of the airplane—some very different in appearance and function. The wings have been lengthened, the flight engineer position removed, the front end extended, the wings given winglets and then raked tips.
The variants include passenger and cargo airplanes and the “combi,” which carries both. Two modified 747s ferried the space shuttle for NASA for 30 years, and two now haul large sections of the 787 Dreamliner to Boeing’s assembly plants in Washington state and South Carolina. Perhaps the most famous modification is the one used for VIPs. In the United States, the president flies in a 747 as Air Force One, as do the heads of state in India, Japan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Yemen.
“The 747 got its name ‘Queen of the Sky’ for alot of reasons,” says Randy Tinseth, vice president for marketing at Boeing, “because of the way it looks and its appeal to passengers. But also because of all the things it can do. It has a place in aviation history.” He speaks with the zeal of an evangelist, but he loses me when he concludes, “and the Dash 8 will continue that legacy.” I’m skeptical because the number of orders for that airplane is so paltry.
If anybody is primed to believe in the latest version of the 747—the one with the suffix -8 (also known as the Intercontinental)—it’s Lufthansa executive vice president Nico Buchholz. In 2006, his airline became the first to order the Dash 8. The airplane was still on the drawing board and Lufthansa contributed to its design. The Dash 8 would keep the jumbo jet’s signature shape, but nearly every other important element would change. “It has a new wing. It has the most modern engine [the General Electric GEnx-2B] of any four-engine aircraft worldwide. There is a lot of new technology.”
Others don’t share the German aviation executive’s enthusiasm. Besides Lufthansa, only Korean Air, China Air, Nigeria’s Arik Air, and Russia’s Transaero are the airlines that have bought it to carry passengers. Boeing spent $4 billion developing the Intercontinental, and just 51 have been sold, according to Boeing.
Buchholz says Boeing should have promoted the airplane more vigorously. “Boeing builds brilliant aircraft, but you still need to push them into the market,” he says. “They are not purchased by themselves.”
From Boeing’s standpoint, says Tinseth, the key to bringing the 747 into the 21st century was to create an airliner with the same operating costs as the 747-400 but with greater payload capacity and range. Lufthansa began flying the Dash 8 in 2012 on routes between the United States and India. But the new passenger jumbo’s future looks doubtful.
I ask Aboulafia why an airplane so beloved seems to be flying into history. “People drew the wrong lessons,” he says. “People said ‘Look how well it sold. There’s a market.’ But they bought it for the range, not capacity.” Sure, he says, being big was news-making at the time, but what made the airplane a success was not being big, and when seats go unsold, an airline doesn’t make money. “Somehow that history got rewritten,” he says.
If there’s one aviation market where size does count, it may be cargo. Aboulafia and Tinseth agree that the future looks brighter for the Dash 8 freighter, which has 4,200 cubic feet more capacity than the -400, with space for seven additional cargo pallets. Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Cargolux, and Nippon Cargo, among other carriers, have ordered a total of 68 Dash 8 freighters. “The freighter has done better than we anticipated, and the passenger airplane not as well as we would liked to have seen,” says Tinseth.
Deciding to retire the 747 was, for many airlines, that rare accounting decision that had to be separated from sentiment. “It will make everybody very, very sad because people are very fond of the jumbo,” Air India’s president, Rohit Nandan, says. “People love the jumbos, but of course the world changes.”