SEATTLE (AP) — Boeing bid farewell to an icon on Tuesday as it delivered its latest 747 jumbo jet.
Since its first flight in 1969, the giant but graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA space shuttles and an Air Force One presidential plane. It revolutionized travel by connecting international cities that had never had direct routes before and helping to democratize passenger flying.
But over the past 15 years or so, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more cost-effective, fuel-efficient jumbo jets, with just two engines to maintain instead of the 747’s four. The latest plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in Puget Sound, Washington.
A large crowd of current and former Boeing employees are expected for the final farewell. The last one is being delivered to the carrier Atlas Air.
“If you love this job, you dread this moment,” said longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “No one wants a four-engine airliner anymore, but that doesn’t erase the aircraft’s tremendous contribution to the development of the industry or its remarkable heritage.”
Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A. The idea was to take advantage of new engines being developed for transport – high-flow turbofans, which burned less fuel by blowing air around the engine core, allowing longer flight range – and use them for a newly imagined civilian aircraft.
It took more than 50,000 Boeing employees less than 16 months to produce the first 747 – a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Incredibles”. Production of the jumbo jet required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle – the largest building in the world by volume.
The plane’s fuselage was 225 feet (68.5 meters) long, and the tail was as tall as a six-story building. The aircraft’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit over the first third of the aircraft, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring a nickname, the Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the queen of the skies.
Some airlines turned the second deck into a first-class cocktail bar, while even the lower deck sometimes featured lounges or even a piano bar. A decommissioned 747, originally built for Singapore Airlines in 1976, has been converted into a 33-room hotel near Stockholm Airport.
“It was the first big carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to know what to do with it and how to fill it,” said Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at the Albright College of Pennsylvania which specializes in aviation and mobility. “It’s become the essence of mass air travel: you can’t fill it with people paying full fare, so you have to lower the prices to get people on board. That’s contributed to what’s happened. passed in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air transport.
The first 747 entered service in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route, and its timing was terrible, Aboulafia said. It debuted shortly before the 1973 oil crisis, amid a recession that saw Boeing’s employment decline from 100,800 employees in 1967 to a low of 38,690 in April 1971. The “bust of Boeing” was notoriously tagged by a billboard near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. which read, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn off the lights.”
An updated model – the 747-400 series – arrived in the late 1980s and had much better timing, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s, Aboulafia said. He remembers taking a Cathay Pacific 747 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong as a backpacker in his twenties in 1991.
“Even people like me could go see Asia,” Aboulafia said. “Before, you had to stop to fill up in Alaska or Hawaii and it was much more expensive. It was a straight shot – and reasonably priced.
Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including German airline Lufthansa.
Atlas Air ordered four 747-8 freighters early last year, with the last leaving the factory on Tuesday.
Boeing has its roots in the Seattle area and has assembly plants in Washington State and South Carolina. The company announced in May that it would move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Va., bringing its executives closer to key federal government officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, which certifies Boeing passenger and cargo planes.
Boeing’s relationship with the FAA has been strained since the fatal crashes of its best-selling plane, the 737 Max, in 2018 and 2019. The FAA took nearly two years – far longer than Boeing expected – to approve the changes of design and allow the aircraft to return to the air.