More and more airlines are retiring their Boeing 747s, typically replacing them with smaller and more modern planes that can fly further at a lower cost. But while the Jumbo Jet’s days as a passenger plane may be numbered, there are signs this aviation icon will still be carrying our air freight for a long time to come.

British Airways runs the world’s largest 747 passenger fleet, with 36 of the aircraft in operation.
Picture credit: British Airways media bank

Of all the things that make the Boeing 747 special, it’s not the plane’s many firsts, mosts and biggests that explain why it captures the imagination of so many people. It’s because the 747 has achieved the seemingly impossible task of both marking and defying time.

Those of us who grew up with the Jumbo Jet still feel a nostalgia-tinted sense of childhood wonder whenever we see or fly on one today, marveling at the beauty of a plane that looks as graceful now as when it first took to the skies nearly 50 years ago. The Boeing 747 is more than just a way of flying from A to B – it’s a bridge across time itself.

The first 747 test flight took place on 9th February 1969 – five months before the Apollo 11 moon landing and six months before the Woodstock festival! Within a year, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) was flying the new four-engine plane from New York to London, and the 747 quickly became the long-haul model of choice for airlines ferrying people and cargo around the world.

From four engines to two

In the years since, twin-engine aircraft have become increasingly efficient, and today some of them – such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the competing Airbus A350 – can fly even further than the 747. So most major airlines have gradually been replacing their 747s with more modern planes.

Singapore Airlines – which once operated the world’s largest 747 fleet – was one of the first major carriers to retire its passenger-carrying jumbos. Air France, Cathay Pacific and Saudia – all of which used to have sizeable fleets of the aircraft – flew their final 747 flights in 2016. Taiwan-based EVA Air retired the plane last August, and both United Airlines and Delta will do so later this year. Australia’s Qantas is still operating some 747s, but will gradually replace those with Dreamliners.

A freighter for the future

In July 2017, when presenting its latest 20-year forecast, Boeing acknowledged that it no longer sees much demand in the passenger market for large airplanes like the 747. But in the same report Boeing offers some hope to those of us who hold the Jumbo Jet so dear, forecasting that it will need to produce some 550 wide-body freighters over the next two decades. That almost certainly means we’ll see more 747s rolling off the production line.

Boeing has long made a freighter version of the 747, recognizable for a nose door that can be raised to accommodate super-supersized shipments in the body of the aircraft. According to figures from aviation intelligence company Flight Global (reported in The Seattle Times), there are 374 of these freighters in operation today, outnumbering the 253 passenger-carrying 747s still in active service.

Interestingly, the 747’s characteristic hump was originally designed to allow easier loading of cargo. At the time, Boeing was concerned that supersonic aviation would quickly dominate the passenger market and render the 747 obsolete as a people carrier. So ferrying cargo was always part of the company’s strategy for the aircraft – if only as a back-up plan. In some ways then, the shift towards using the 747 mainly as a cargo carrier is a return to its original purpose.

Picture credit: Boeing image gallery

In mid 2016, Boeing announced that Russian air cargo specialist Volga-Dnepr Group had ordered 20 freighter 747s to add to the 16 it already runs. Later the same year logistics-giant UPS said it would buy up to 14 freighter 747s, with an option to purchase another 14 at a later stage. This was Boeing’s single biggest order for the plane since Lufthansa took 20 just over a decade ago.

In another encouraging sign of Boeing’s belief in the long-term future of the 747 freighter, the company has even been buying the planes back and leasing them out again. Its lease customers include cargo carriers operating in oil-rich regions of Russia and Azerbaijan, who use 747 freighters to transport heavy drilling equipment.

Flying into forever

Hearing a plane called a “freighter” makes one think of science fiction films and the inter-planetary airship freighters in those. They’re typically depicted as scrappy, aging workhorses that have seen-it-all, and are trusted by pilots to do their job beautifully. In the world we inhabit, that freighter is the 747.

So it’s easy to imagine that on the day the Jumbo Jet turns 100 years old (9th February 2069), it won’t be travelers at Heathrow or JFK watching the plane land. It’ll be the residents of a snowbound city in Siberia who will hear the low rumbling of the Queen of the Skies as she rolls in over the hills – carrying her cargo as gracefully as she will always bear the weight of time.

Picture credit: Boeing image gallery