Podcast: End Of The Line For Boeing’s 747
Listen in as Aviation Week editors reflect on the 747's beginning and its legacy.
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Welcome to this week's edition of the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week magazine.
The last Boeing 747 has rolled off the assembly line, marking the end of an iconic aircraft program that revolutionized air transport more than 50 years ago. When Boeing rolled out the 747 in 1968, the company had bet most of its net worth, then about a billion dollars, on the jumbo jet. That gamble nearly put the company out of business in the early 1970s.
Next week in Seattle, Boeing will deliver its 1,574th and last 747 to Atlas Air. Joining me to discuss this momentous occasion, are two authors of books on the 747 program. They also happen to be Aviation Week editors. Guy Norris has followed the program and Boeing since the 1980s. And Jens Flottau is Aviation Week's Executive Editor for Commercial Aviation, reporting from Europe.
Guy, let's start with a confession from me. I've read more of your book than Jens' book, but that's because his book's in German. So some historical context here. The 747 made its first flight in 1969, less than a month before the first flight of the supersonic Concorde. And conventional wisdom at the time was the 747 would evolve into mainly a freighter once the supersonic Boeing 2707, which was the U.S. answer to the Concorde, entered service. So that actually affected how the 747 was designed. Fill us in on that.
You're right Joe. It's strange to imagine now, and in fact we're just so used to the idea of widebody jets, you just take it for granted. But if you do, you're right, if you go back more than 50 years to that period, when Boeing was beginning its design studies, it was the assumption that, "Who would want to stooge around at subsonic speeds when you could go twice the speed of sound for all those long range flights?" So that absolutely impacted the design. Joe Sutter, who of course, chief engineer, the designer really, the father of the Queen of the Skies, told me that it was really hard to recruit the top engineering talent to his team because they were definitely team B to start with, because everybody was focused on the 2707 and the race to catch up with the Concorde in Europe.
So when they, late on, very late on, just before the actual signing of the contract with Pan Am in April of '66, they actually conceived this idea of, "Why not just put everything on a wide single deck?" Before that, they were looking at really putting two 707 type fuselages on top of each other, so that at a stroke, just changed the world. They were able to do so much with that wide deck. The hump of the top, the classic hump of the 747, appeared because they had to put everything on one deck. They had to get the cockpit up and out the way, so where do you put it? There was one option they looked at which putting the cockpit underneath that wide deck, a bit like the Beluga, the Airbus Beluga is today. But of course for the 747, they ended up putting it on top. So that allowed the hinging nose to give access to that main door if it was a cargo aircraft.
And let's go back to the 1960s. I mean it was the age of the glamorous jet set, probably over glamorized these days as Jens has pointed out. Business class today is actually a lot nicer than it was in the 1960s. But tell us about the first Boeing 747s, they actually had lounges, right, upstairs?
They did.... So originally, when Pan Am was leading the design of this, of course, they thought, "Well, was that going to be that aerodynamic hump behind the flight deck, why not fill it with something?" At first it was going to be a crew rest area, but John Bulger, who was the sort of leading the design team for Pan Am, he was the one that said, "Heck no. We can make money out of this. We can make it a sort of piano bar and a kind of cocktail lounge." They were sort of going back to the era of the Boeing Stratocruiser when, of course, you had that idea of a... And in that case, sort of a cocktail area for passengers below the main cabin. So this one was, initially, that's what everybody's design was. You saw these concepts from United, American, Pan Am, all these early operators and it was this, kind of hideous to us these days, the 1970s kind of color schemes and decor.
But, of course, reality, unfortunately for us all, caught up the oil crisis, the worldwide recession in the early '70s suddenly made people realize that they had to put seats up there and fill that aircraft with as many seats as possible. And this was all part of Pan Am's plan to reduce operating costs on the Atlantic and Pacific routes by up to 30%. And they only could do that if they filled the thing with seats. And I think the last thing to point out on this is that really, at that time, it was that transition between flying for the wealthy and flying for everybody. And I think that was the key thing about the 747, it totally democratized flying for the world. For the first time ordinary people could afford to fly.
Jens Flottau, to that point that Guy just made, the 747 did open the door for the masses to travel across the ocean and this aircraft actually holds a special place in your connection to America. You want to tell us about it?
My first trip to the U.S. was in 1987, so long into the life of the 747. I was a foreign exchange student and I flew there on a TWA, the 747. I was obviously amazed, maybe that was the beginning of my aviation reporter career, who knows. But I still remember it to this day even though it's obviously decades ago.
So Jens, you cover Airbus. The A380 from Airbus was launched about 30 years after the 747, and yet the 747 has outlasted it, thanks in large part to Germany. Can you explain for us that dynamic?
Well, there's a whole Lufthansa story that spans the entire career of the 747, really the entire history of the 747. I remember in writing my book on the 747, Juergen Weber, the former CEO of Lufthansa told me that he was flying into Seattle that day, the 9th of February 1969, the day of the first flight of the 747. And the captain of his flight told him, "Look out the window. There's the first 747 flying." And he says he still remembers that to this day. Initially, Lufthansa wasn't such a big fan of the aircraft, it was big, the airline thought it wasn't as technologically advanced as it could have been.
They actually talked to Boeing about a two-man cockpit back in the early '70s and Boeing wasn't going to do it. They only did it on the 747-400, 20 years later. Of course then fast forward to 2005, it was Lufthansa that pushed Boeing into launching the 747-8, the latest and last passenger version of the 747 because they'd wanted a replacement of the 400 that was a little bit larger, more efficient, new engines, that kind of new wing, and Boeing believed that it could extend the life of the program.
Now coming back to Airbus, it's, as you say, ironic that they launched this, the A380 30 years after the Boeing 747 entered service, yet terminated production sooner. Now why is that? I think Airbus clearly was after the wrong target. They thought in the 2000s, or in 2000 when they launched the aircraft, that they needed a big aircraft to compete with Boeing, when in fact, there had been signs that the market was already turning back then. Boeing had launched the 777, which entered service in '95, a twin engine, smaller aircraft, more efficient. And then, of course, in the 2000s, the 787 came and the A350 later, which were on a proceed basis as efficient or even better than the 380 and the 747. Thus, the airlines didn't need to operate a large aircraft to get to low unit cost, which is what eventually killed the 380 and the 747.
Just to follow on from that, I think it's a really good point Jens raises because when you actually look at today's market and what the 747-8, the passenger version is compared to 777-9, which is Boeing’s successor, it kind of continues that theme. So the 747-8 is usually configured for about 360 but can take up to almost 470 passengers and fly more than 7,700 nautical miles. This 777-9 is almost pretty well on a par in terms of passenger. It can take up to 426 passengers, but usually would be about 380 and it's only slightly shorter on range, about 7,300ish, that sort of max range time. But of course, this 777-9 is only about a foot and a bit longer, about a third of a meter longer than a 747-8, which is 250 feet long. But it's only got two engines versus four. And I think that's really the nub of it right there because efficiency and the potential power of these new engines enabled, I mean, I think, let's face it, if Boeing had the big engines that are available today, it would probably have skipped a four engine design altogether. But that's the way it was in those days. One, just one GE 9X is the equivalent of three of the original 747 engines on the dash 100 in terms of max power. So it's extraordinary what's happened.
And just a few thoughts about the airline side of things. You have to remember what crucial role the 747 played for some of these airlines. I mentioned TWA, obviously PanAm in the beginning, but BA, Guy's first 747 trip at its peak, they operated 57 747-400s just out of Heathrow. And imagine what the power of that hop was. Qantas, from 1979 to 1985, all they operated was 747s. They didn't have another aircraft, they were just flying 747s. Lufthansa, a big hub in Europe.
Ironically, I should say the 747 didn't play quite as an important role for the U.S. carriers as it did for Asian and European Airlines. A lot of the U.S. airlines retired the aircraft relatively soon. Delta in the '70s, American relatively soon. Of course, Delta got back into it when they acquired Northwest and then retired the final aircraft in 2017. But the U.S. airlines were front runners in operating smaller widebodies fairly soon. So I thought that was just noteworthy.
My first flight on the 747 was the first time I went to Europe, 1989, TWA, JFK to Heathrow. So I guess we all have something in common there. Guy, back to that thousandth delivery back in the 1990s, and I think you were on a flight with Phil Condit who was the head of Boeing back then. Could anybody back then in the '90s have imagined that we would still be rolling out 747s in 2023?
That's exactly what I was thinking. At that time the 1,000th, it was a pretty big deal, but you're right, I don't think anybody could have conceived it. Actually, at the time, Phil Condit did mention that, "I'm pretty sure that we'll be still building this into the next century." So they did think, obviously, that it would last at least another maybe 10 years at that point.
But you're right, here we are in the '20s. And the big difference, of course, goes back to that original design decision to make it a freighter, obviously a freighter. It has been the reason the dash 8 has really prospered for another 11 years, the fundamental basis is that it is still the world's largest available commercial freighter, if you don't include, say Antonov 124s and that sort of thing. As a production commercial freighter, it'll be around for decades to come.
And just to sort of follow up a little bit on something Jens was saying, it's the flexibility of this basic design which has also enabled it not only to be the baseline passenger aircraft to be stretched and developed into 17 versions, but it's a combi, it's a freighter, it's also been done very other odd things that no other aircraft could do. It's become, there's one version that's the world's biggest firefighting aircraft, two were converted to carry the U.S. Space Shuttle, again, in a way that perhaps no other aircraft could have done. There's been a SOFIA Space Telescope version of the 747SP, and there's been unseen design studies of various 747s to drop ICBMs, to provide a huge airborne synthetic radar platform. All of these different things, not all of them happened of course, but it just kind of goes to show the incredible flexibility of the baseline design.
And I do have one funny story that I can tell you, actually. When we flew on another 747, it was Asiana's first delivery to Korea and there was only, again, long range. So it meant there were very few people aboard, just the chief executives, top people from Boeing, top people from Asiana, and only four journalists, and the Boeing PR person. We arrived at Seoul and there was outside, a sea of people, there was a Chinese dragon, there was a huge choir of school kids, it was a very big deal, TV cameras. So they allowed us off the aircraft first because we wanted to be able to get photographs of the VIPs coming down.
So they allowed us off at door two on the left-hand side. And we came down and, of course, the media just thought we were the VIPs and despite the protestations of the Boeing PR people to stop filming, the Koreans insisted that we were going to be the VIPs. So a few minutes later, they opened the front door, the first class section, and basically they were ignored. And that night we had a big banquet in town and they said, "Oh, everybody look at the TV screens, we're going to be on the news now." And, of course, it was the four journalists coming down the steps. Fantastic. It's so funny.
That's a great story. Jens, the A380 is no longer in production, the 747 is now no longer in production. So if an airline wants a large aircraft, what's the biggest aircraft they can buy now?
The 777-9 would be the largest. It's about 50 seats more than the A350-1000, which would be number two. Obviously the big challenge Boeing faces right now is delivering the aircraft. It's five years late and supposed to come by 2025 now, I guess. It's also the reason why some of these 747s fly longer than they should have flown. Some airlines have extended operations of the 747-400, even let alone the dash 8's that are in service with Lufthansa, Air China, and Korean Air.
And Guy, a 777-9 is not that much smaller than a 747 in terms of passenger seating, right?
Yeah, that's right. I mean I think we mentioned earlier the fact that you could put up to 426, 430 passengers in a 777-9 in a two class configuration. I mean that's just a few short of the 467 which was generally the larger upper end of the regular 747-8 intercontinental, not that Lufthansa who would put that many people in it, but it's essentially... The 777-9 is a twin engine 747 essentially. And, of course, it really does completely reflect the replacement requirement for the 747-400, which is really what Boeing wanted to do with the dash 9. The 747-8 having been acknowledged as perhaps a stretch too far for that market. And that's reflected in the number they sold and the fact that the competing A380, of course, as you mentioned earlier, sadly didn't make it into extended production really.
Well, unfortunately, we're running short on time. But Jens, I wanted to end with you. I had challenged you to tell me something about the 747 I didn't know, and you said that at one point there were proposals to put a glass nose on the aircraft so passengers could see out the front of it. What was that all about?
Yeah, that was a request Pan Am had in the development phase of the aircraft. Juan Trippe, the CEO of Pan Am at the time, came up with the idea of putting a glass nose up there so that passengers in the premium cabin could look out to the front. But of course, Boeing told them that that would add about half a ton weight to the aircraft. And so, in the end, Pan Am didn't pursue that idea.
And yeah, to follow that, Jens, Joe Sutter delighted in telling me that,"the 747 is the only airplane where the passengers sit ahead of the pilot." Because of course it's true.
Well, on that note, we have to call this a wrap. But Jens, thanks for your time. Guy, you'll be traveling out to Seattle next week to see the final 747, so we'll look forward to your reporting then we'll also look forward to your cover story in next week's edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine. But for now, that is a wrap for this week's Check 6 Podcast. Special thanks to our producer in London, Guy Ferneyhough. Don't miss future episodes so subscribing to Check 6 in your podcast app of choice. And remember, Check 6 is not our only podcast. You can also listen to Aviation Week's Window Seat, MRO and BCA podcasts wherever you found this one. And one final request, if you're listening to us on Apple Podcast and want to support Check 6, please leave us a star rating or a review. Have a great day, and thank you for your time.