OTTAWA—In a world where the masses aren’t travelling, what to do with the jumbo jet that defined the era of mass air travel?
Like most other passenger jets, the venerable Boeing 747 — the “Queen of the Skies” — and its newer superjumbo competitor, the Airbus A380, are parked at airports and desert storage yards, sitting out the travel freeze brought on by the pandemic.
But how many of these famous jets will return to the skies?
In the post-pandemic era, demand for travel is not expected to bounce back fast, meaning the economics of these jumbo jets make less sense, at least for hauling passengers.
Bracing for that business reality, airlines are announcing that some of the jets sitting idle will remain permanently parked, the 747 and A380 among them, in favour of smaller, newer and more efficient twin-engine aircraft.
Virgin Atlantic, for example, has announced it will no longer fly the seven Boeing 747-400s in its fleet. Lufthansa is decommissioning five Boeing 747-400s. KLM accelerated the planned retirement of its jumbos.
But the pandemic that has put a question mark over the passenger variant of the 747 has seen the freighter version flying to the rescue with cargo carriers, with the likes of UPS and Atlas Air using their fleets of 747s to shuttle critical supplies around the globe.
Almost overnight, travel restrictions and border closures virtually shut down air travel. The International Air Transport Association says that demand plummeted 53 per cent in March over the previous year, the largest decline in recent history.
“Worse, we know that the situation deteriorated even more in April and most signs point to a slow recovery,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, said in a statement.
Air Canada has chopped capacity by 90 per cent and predicts it could take three years for traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“We are now living through the darkest period ever in the history of commercial aviation,” Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada’s president and CEO said as the airline announced it would phase out 79 older Embraer 190s, Airbus A319s and Boeing 767s.
The economic fallout of the virus has accelerated trends that already had airlines parking their Boeing 747-400s, a popular but aging variant which first flew three decades ago.
U.S. carriers such as United and Delta retired their 747 fleets in 2017. Israeli airline El Al stopped flying its 747s in November. British Airways, the world’s largest operator of the jet, had previously announced plans to phase out the aircraft by 2024. (Over the years, four airlines have operated the 747 in Canada — Canadian Airlines, CP Air, Wardair and Air Canada.)
The Boeing 747 was a showstopper when it rolled out in 1968, an exercise in superlatives. At the time the world’s biggest plane, it was assembled in the world’s biggest factory, purpose-built in Everett, Wash.
Compared to the Boeing 707 — a trendsetter in its own right — the 747 carried twice as many passengers, 181 vs. 400. It was some 20 metres wider and longer. Its tail stood six storeys tall and its distinctive double-deck fuselage — enlarged in subsequent designs — was head and shoulders above all other aircraft.
“That plane has been iconic to say the very least,” Calgary-based aviation analyst Rick Erickson said.
“The shape of the aircraft is unmistakable … just seeing one can be inspiring. You know in a flash that you’re not looking at anything other than 747, the jumbo of the skies,” he said in an interview.
It came to represent the ambition of commercial air travel, as the industry morphed from an exclusive enclave of the rich and famous to an era of mass air travel. The 747’s first commercial flight was in 1970 and over the next five years, air travel increased by some 39 per cent to 432 million passengers a year, according to World Bank figures. (It was 4.2 billion passengers in 2018.)
“It was the backbone of the advancement of the middle class into international travel,” Erickson said.
Beyond flying freight and passengers, extensive modifications have also seen 747s transformed into a flying White House, a transporter for NASA’s space shuttles, an airborne command post for the U.S. government, a high-flying space observatory and a supersized aerial fire truck to battle forest blazes.
Hoping to capture a slice of this market, Airbus designed its A380 as a giant-sized challenger to the 747, able to carry more than 500 passengers on two full decks. Emirates operates more than 100 of the jets, with cabins that feature a standup bar on the second level.
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But the A380 and the 747-8 (the newest version of the 747) struggled to find commercial success. Airbus has already announced that it will suspend A380 production next year after building fewer than 300 of the jets. Boeing has scaled back production of the 747-8 to just six a year.
Airlines instead have come to prefer smaller twin-engine aircraft, like the Boeing 777 and 787 and Airbus A350, that can be utilized with greater flexibility on less-popular routes, in order to provide the direct flights that passengers prefer.
“The appeal of the aircraft is lessening … what passengers want is point-to-point, avoiding congested hubs,” Erickson said.
And in a new world of dampened demand, operating these larger aircraft become more challenging.
“It’s on its last legs and it’s all to do with economics,” said Jim Scott, the president and CEO of Edmonton-based Flair Airlines, who flew several versions of the 747 for Cathay Pacific earlier in his career.
He notes that the development of more powerful and efficient jet engines meant that twin-engine aircraft could almost do the job of the four-engine 747. The Boeing 777-300, for example, carries more passengers than the early versions of the 747.
“The engine technology has made these slightly smaller twins more economic than these great big large jumbo jets,” he said.
The jumbo promises to soldier on as a cargo carrier — indeed, the freighter version of the 747-8 has been a better seller than passenger variant. Of the 154 orders booked, 107 are for the freighter.
Design features will ensure the 747’s longevity as a flying freighter. It can carry 134 tonnes of cargo. Its nose can open upwards, allowing freight to be loaded straight into its voluminous main deck that can swallow 692 cubic metres of cargo, in addition what is carried below in the holds.
“The things that were put into the 747 freighter were like cattle, horses and race cars … I used to fly the freighter all over the world. We’d lift the nose up and put all sorts of weird things down that aircraft,” Scott said.
“It still has a little bit of life left as a freighter but … as passenger airplanes, the 747-400s are done and I hate to say it because I love the airplane,” he said.
He remembers the 747 as a gentle giant, easy to fly. From their cockpit perch some three storeys above the tarmac, the pilots had a lofty view even before they left the ground.
“There was no escaping that sense of being head and shoulders over the other aircraft,” Scott said.
“Especially when you used to go to smaller airports, you’d just be so much higher than everybody. You’d be looking down onto the airport,” he said.