The formidable Boeing 747 remains a world-class player in the airline industry 44 years after it entered service in Pan American World Airways livery. The 1,500th 747 was delivered late last month to Lufthansa; it was the 75th model for the carrier that helped launch the type in the late 1960s. No other widebody has reached this production milestone, an achievement that deserves more media attention at a time when small and medium-size airliners seem to be on the ascent. 

It is unusual to be able to celebrate a specific aircraft type more than four decades after the MSN 1 rollout and while production is still ongoing. Although only six 747-8Is were delivered during this year’s first half and the production rate is at its lowest point, this doesn’t mean the 747 is approaching the end of its industrial life. It remains a class in itself, despite competition from the Airbus A380 and the impending stretched-fuselage 777X

The launch of the 747 opened a new chapter in the airline industry’s saga. The October 1968 rollout ceremony, attended by an admiring crowd, marked the emergence of a commercial transport of unprecedented dimensions, and thousands of visitors circled the “Jumbo Jet” at the 1969 Paris air show, where it dominated the static display and signaled the dawn of a new era of travel for the masses.

In those days, a touch of euphoria surrounded commercial aviation. The positive mood was illustrated by Boeing’s official rollout dinner in the Olympic Hotel ballroom in Seattle at which Up with People sang about peace and friendship around the globe, inviting the audience to forget the Cold War momentarily. 

The 747’s upper deck was expected to include a piano bar, fares were to decrease thanks to significantly lower direct operating costs, and it was anticipated that air transportation democratization would rapidly become a robust reality. Glamour suddenly became part of mainstream commercial aviation. That exceptional year of 1969 also saw the Franco-British Concorde supersonic transport’s first flight and Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon. It seems that nothing comparable will happen again.

Today the key question is whether there is still a future for airliners with more than 400 seats, Very Large Aircraft (VLA). Airbus and Boeing have disseminated contradictory views on the topic in the past 15 years, with market forecasts from Toulouse and Seattle leading to divergent or opposite conclusions. Boeing’s latest outlook says another 760 VLAs will enter service by 2032, while Airbus is more optimistic, predicting that twice that many will be acquired by mainstream airlines. 

Both big airframers could be proven wrong eventually, of course, which would also indicate that both sides were right in the consolidation-versus-fragmentation controversy born in the late 1990s. Airlines have consolidated in some markets and proliferated in others in the last 20 years, and the future for 300-400-seat twinjets looks bright.

Lufthansa is operating both the 525-seat A380 and 467-seat 747-8, demonstrating that major carriers can make them live happily under the same roof. The 747 could well retain its production-milestone claim of fame for many years to come, since its European competitor is selling slowly, well below Airbus’s expectations. 

An Airbus official made a telling remark last month that got very little notice. “We could find a few more [A380] customers, but we expect mostly reorders,” Kiran Rao, executive vice president for strategy and marketing, said at the Airbus Innovation Days last month. In other words, it seems increasingly improbable to secure orders for more than 1,500 VLAs in the next 20 years. The players and market environment of the pre-deregulation 1970s are long gone and will never be paralleled.

But in taking delivery of Lufthansa’s 75th 747, Executive Vice President of Fleet Management Nico Buchholz made note of the 747-8’s exceptional economical and ecological performance. It is these qualities, rather than simply its high seat capacity, that will help the venerable model retain its flagship role well into the 21st century.