Boeing 747s may be close to the end

Boeing trimming production rate of 747-8

Demand for the 747 has been slowing down. Four-engine jets seem to be a bit thirsty for today’s market, and the 777 seems to be a better option.

While the 747-8 has a maximum capacity of 605 seats, three-class seating is 467. The 777 seats 314 to 451 passengers. So a typical 747 arrangement is about the same as the maximum arrangement for the 777 – though the three-class 747 carries nearly 50% more people if the 777 uses a more comfortable arrangement. Is the 777 that much more efficient? Even with the reduced fuel burn, you’re still spending more than $300,000,000 to buy the airplane.

In any case, it looks like Boeing has enough orders to take it into 2017. The current Air Force One, built in 1987, is scheduled to be replaced in 2021 – four years after production of 747s may stop. The Pentagon is considering buying two aircraft four years early.

Thirteen of the 39 planes currently on order are freighter models. If orders for the freighter version do not pick up, then it sounds like the 747 is on its way out. But 45 years – 47 years in 2017 – is a pretty good run. (I’d still like to see the 50th Anniversary Edition.)

Airbus has been having similar difficulties selling the A380 to anyone other than Emirates. I think they (Boeing and Airbus) simply overestimated the size of the market for such large planes in this day.

yeah, it’s like buying a brand new car because it gets a bit better gas mileage. The problem with the 747 is that there are already a ton of them out there working, so in essence the 747-8 is competing with its predecessors.

Overestimated? Boeing has sold over 1,500 747s over 45 years or so. Meanwhile Airbus has sold about 150 A380s over ten years or so.

yes, and like I said a lot of those planes are still in service. If you’ve got something that’s working, and it’s going to cost a lot to replace it, do you really want to replace it?

and a third of those A380s were bought by Emirates.

Ultimately, the 747-8 and the A380 were both bets that fewer larger aircraft flying traditional routes between existing gateway airports would be the growth path of the future.

Conversely, the smaller aircraft are a bet that most future growth will be between lesser cities and on non-traditional routes.

The former view requires one to focus on the fact that adding more takeoffs and landings in NY, Tokyo, London, Paris, etc. isn’t happening because of cost & local opposition. So bigger aircraft are the only way to increase capacity

The latter view requires a focus on all the secondary cities and up-and-coming cities in the up-and-coming parts of the world.

There’s room for both views to be successful, but not for both to be wildly successful in the same decade. Which is why both Boeing & Airbus make both sorts of aircraft.

Boeing was wise (or timid) enough to simply upgrade the 747, rather than trying to build a mongo replacement from scratch. Airbus did not have that luxury (lacking a correspondingly large existing model) and was forced to either build something like the A380 from scratch or cede that market segment to Boeing.

As luck would have it, Airbus’ prognostications always favored the fewer, larger planes model more than Boeing’s did. Whereas the growth pattern of the last decade or so has mostly favored the other growth model.

And both aircraft came of age just as the Great Recession was at its lowest ebb. So both are tarnished by slow sales in the early years. Which really hits lifetime profitability of the product line.

Just like we no longer build DC-3s, a day will come when no more 747s are being built. We’re getting close to that point.

Side item: there’s a lot more to comparing large aircraft besides simple passenger count. There’s a three way tradeoff between passenger count, capacity for revenue cargo beyond passenger baggage, and mission range versus the airport mix used by the operating carriers. Fuel efficiency is also a huge, albeit separate, factor. From a profitability perspective, passenger headcount is almost always the least of those 4 factors.

About 10 years ago I was chatting with a United Airlines employee about 777 being the only plane they flew across the Atlantic. They told me that the 777 holds more cargo than a 747. Don’t know if that’s true but that’s what I was told.

When Airbus was developing the A380, Boeing was developing the 787 Dreamliner. Airbus bet that there was a market for giant planes carrying up to 800 passengers between major hub airports, while Boeing bet that smaller, more efficient planes flying to smaller cities would be more popular. I think Boeing’s bet turned out correct.

I’ve read of several incidents where a A380 collided with stuff while taxiing. The airports weren’t quite ready to manage the wingspan issues.

I think the 747 may end up like the DC-3 and will soldier on for many years after the majors move to other aircraft. They are reported to be very good and without nasty flight characteristics.

But Airbus’ A350 gets to go after the same market the 787 is going after.

I believe that the A350 was developed in response to the 787 Dreamliner.

Not directly related to this thread; has anyone noticed that in most Boeing v Airbus online discussions that they invariably descend into a pissing contest between Americans and Europeans? Both sides appear equally as guilty of this.

Right. And in a way, the 777 was what really displaced the 747 IMO with more flexibility while being economically viable on all those criteria, when it was introduced. Someone replacing a fleet of passenger 747s will look at the -8 and at the 777 and may decide the latter is a safer bet.

Good point with the 380 and 747-8 peaking or arriving just as the Great Recession was also going on. Guess what, when you’re tacking on fuel surcharges on top of luggage fees on top of high ticket prices and lower disposable incomes, you are filling fewer seats. And you can make the greatest (airplane, car, shirt, pants, movie, music album, computer) in the world but if when you introduce it, it does not rock the sales figures and stock price for this quarter, your investors will call it a dud.
It’s kind of fascinating how meanwhile on the single-aisle midrange 150 seaters side of the equation, Boeing has absolutely no trouble soldiering on with a repeatedly upgraded and reinterpreted 737 after 50 years, and Airbus itself decided to follow a smilar path when the time came for “generational” change in the A320 family. Of course, in this segment you have a higher rate of turnover since the planes have proportionally more cycles, more airlines will use them and both have pretty much perfected the product – and it’s not like your Ryanairs/EasyJets/Southwests/Spirits and their customers demand the latest and greatest in style and comfort, they want fuel efficiency, reliable operation and an airframe they can flog relentlessly and the customers want to get where they’re going in one piece for $80 plus tax and luggage fee.

Hijack: yesterday I was directly underneath TWO 747s while driving home from the airport. The first was on a taxiway that I drove under, and the second one was coming in for a landing a few minutes later.

I almost waterskied under a 747 once.

They are debating pulling the plug on the A380 too. It’s a shame, the A380 is a great aircraft.

I wondered once if you could approach the capacity of an A380 by extending the hump, and therefore the upper deck, of a Boeing 747 the length of the plane. Doing so presumably could be done for much less than Airbus spent to develop the A380.

I’ll offer this counter to all the objective discussion:

I think the 747 is a beautiful aircraft, and I’ll be sad when they stop making it. I don’t know what it is - the hump, the size, the proportions, or what - but it just appeals to my aesthetic sense in a way that other commercial aircraft don’t.

I read somewhere that the hump, and the high placement of the flight deck on the 747 was so that the pilot was safely above any cargo when the plane was in cargo mode.

And the 747 is significant as the first true jumbo jet, and a bet-the-company gamble by the Boeing company.

Actually the hump was there because the original design was made for a USAF contract for a cargo carrier which had to load from one end or the other. At that time Boeing had lost the last couple of rounds of military cargo contracts and didn’t have an airframe they could easily adapt to the mission. So the idea they came up with was to put the hump up there and have a swing nose to access the cargo compartment. Meanwhile the rest of the aircraft was more or less a scaled-up 707 they knew how to design, cost, and build.

They lost that contract competition too. But the design concept floated around at HQ for awhile and then emerged as the 747 in both passenger & commercial freighter flavors.
ETA: The cockpit-on-a-hump configuration is hardly original with the 747. The 747 is the physically largest & most numerous example, but there have been plenty of others, mostly originating in the military airlifter role in the 1950s & 60s.