Ending an era of large aircraft

Ending an era of large aircraft”

By Scott Hamilton

British Airways announced that it will retire its entire fleet of Boeing 747 airplanes beginning immediately. The decision was brought on in part due to the travel downturn caused by COVID-19, but the plans were already in the works to retire the fleet by 2024. The decision shows the end of a 50-year era where the next generation aircraft was expected to be bigger as well as better. However, newer technology has made smaller planes more efficient to operate and the travel downturn has made the need for large planes nearly non-existent.

The Boeing 747 has dwarfed other planes for nearly 50-years; the world’s first jumbo jet, the “Queen of the Skies,” revolutionized travel for the masses. But in recent years it has fallen in stature due to the high costs. British Airways is one of the last to fly the behemoth 747. The last commercial flight of a 747 by an American airline company took place back in 2017.

“It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect,” British Airways said in a statement. “It is unlikely our magnificent ‘Queen of the Skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.”

The first service on a 747 in 1970 showed it as a highlight in modern travel. It had room for 27 first class and 292 economy class passengers. It contained an iconic, upper deck, “club in the sky” lounge and was the ultimate in luxury travel. The 747 has a tail that stands as tall as a six-story building (63 feet, six inches), a wingspan equal to 50 parked cars (224 feet, five inches), and stretches to an amazing 250 feet, two inches in length. Two football fields are required just to park the plane.

In 1970, the primary goal of aircraft design was to build the planes larger to hold more passengers and reduce the overall ticket costs. This was a great plan in the early 1970s when fuel prices were negligible and barely impacted the financial strategies of the airline industry. However, in recent years, fuel prices have increased and the operating costs have skyrocketed, making the four-engine Boeing 747 too expensive to operate in comparison to the smaller twin-engine planes.

British Airways has been flying their fleet of 747s since their final purchase in April 1999; between the aging aircraft, the increased fuel costs and decreased demand for travel, it is prudent to retire such large aircraft from the fleet. British Airways has been operating in crisis mode since the beginning of the pandemic, threatening thousands of jobs. Cutting the large aircraft from the fleet is just the first of many steps to restructure the company in hopes of staying afloat.

The farewell to commercial flights of the 747 does not mean the end of the aircraft. The most recent order for a Boeing 747 aircraft was placed by the U.S. government in 2017 to be utilized by the president as an Air Force One aircraft. There were two ordered and scheduled for delivery in 2024. These will likely be the last two 747 aircraft to be manufactured, as Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Boeing had quietly pulled the plug on 747 production.

The Boeing 747 was an engineering marvel designed for a time when fuels where cheap and the travel industry was thriving. Large numbers of travelers drove the need for larger and larger airplanes and large airports. As the times have changed, the engineering of aircraft has also made a shift to larger fleets of smaller planes to accommodate smaller groups of travelers to more diverse destinations. As an engineer, it is sad to see a marvel such as the 747 at the end of its life, but even more exciting to see what is coming next. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

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