Soft Landing

The 747 is going extinct

June 13, 2014
Obsession
Design
June 13, 2014

With its cockpit and second story bulging from the top of its ample body, the Boeing 747 is one of the most recognizable airplanes in the world. Introduced in 1969, it is a symbol of the jet age, and elicits romantic notions of long-haul travel.

But the 747—the original jumbo jet—is dying.

Airlines are increasingly using newer, twin-engine planes, and the 747’s share of available seat miles—a measure of total capacity and mileage on scheduled passenger flights—among similarly sized aircraft is expected to fall 14.1 percentage points by April 2015 from 2009 levels. Over the same period, the Airbus 330’s share of seat miles is set to grow 8.8 percentage points and the Boeing 777’s will grow 8.7 points, according to past and scheduled airline operations data compiled by PlaneStats.com.

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This decline comes as overall air travel grows. The capacity of all passenger planes in January 2009 was 281.7 billion seat miles. By April 2015, that’s expected to have increased by 20%, to 336.9 billion. Wide-body capacity over this period will also grow 18.3% to 200.6 billion seat miles.

Not only is the 747’s share of wide-body service shrinking; the total amount of 747 traffic is dropping fast too. The capacity of the global 747 fleet has declined at an annualized rate of 12% since 2009. A passenger 747 can carry 400 to 500 passengers, and the freight version can carry 19 million ping-pong balls or golf balls, according to Boeing, the company that makes the planes. But the global air-cargo business took a hit during the recession, and Boeing last fall announced that it has dropped its production rate for 747s to 1.5 planes per month through 2015 “because of lower market demand for large passenger and freighter airplanes.”

The airlines with the largest fleets of 747s are cutting them fast, but the smaller operators are cutting them even faster. This has resulted in airlines with the most 747 capacity taking a larger share of a shrinking market, despite their efforts to shrink their 747 fleets too.

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Qantas, which at one time exclusively flew 747s, has dumped most of its fleet. It had 35 in service as recently as 2004, and will only be flying nine by the end of 2016.

Even Delta, the airline with the largest increase in 747 service since 2009, doesn’t seem to see much future in the iconic plane. It has requested proposals to replace some, if not all, of its 16 in service. Michael Thomas, a spokesman for Delta, told Quartz that the airline is evaluating its options as the planes are “coming up on an age where it makes sense to replace them.”

In January of 2009, there were 382 billion available seat miles on 747s. In April 2015, there are 169 billion scheduled. In that time one quarter of 747 operators will have stopped flying the equipment.

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The 747 made intercontinental vacations affordable to many for the first time in history. When it was introduced there was no plane that could fly as far (6,000 miles at the time, but for the newer models closer to 8,000), nor carry as many passengers. It has permeated culture, making cameos in hundreds of movies and TV shows—from Goodfellas to Snakes on a Plane.

Without overhead bins above the center rows, the cabins had quite a different appearance than those typical of today.

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A full scale mockup of the proposed 747 economy cabinBoeing

The planes also accommodated configurations with lounges on the upper deck, the front, and the aft of the plane.

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A full scale mockup of a proposed 747 lounge configurationBoeing

But no amount of nostalgia will change the plane’s operating cost on an airline’s balance sheet, or its sustainability report. The 747 is the least efficient wide-body plane flying, according to data reported by US operators—it burns more fuel per hour and per seat mile than any other wide-body commercial airliner. Filling these gigantic planes has been a bugbear for some airlines, even on major routes. And as travelers seek more flight-time options, airlines are opting for multiple departures per day with smaller planes.

“The new aircraft types make environmental advances and contribute toward our targets for noise and carbon reduction” a spokesperson for British Airways told Quartz, “they are also more fuel efficient than the aircraft they are replacing.” BA is spending billions on the current generation of wide-body aircraft—the Airbus A380s and Boeing 787. It will begin to retire its “much loved” 747 fleet this year when its oldest jumbo jet—at 24 years old—is scheduled to be taken out of service.

Boeing, for its part, said in an email to Quartz the 747s being delivered now are 16% more fuel efficient than those built from 1989-2010—a result of continuous efforts to improve efficiency of the plane.

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Read this next: Here are the 32 countries Google Maps won’t draw borders around

Correction (June 17): An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that the 747 made transcontinental vacations affordable. The plane made intercontinental vacations affordable.

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