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Spectators take images of a British Airways Boeing 747 as it does a flypast over London Heathrow airport on it's final flight.  (REUTERS)
Spectators take images of a British Airways Boeing 747 as it does a flypast over London Heathrow airport on it's final flight. (REUTERS)

The rise and fall of the world’s most iconic aircraft, in four charts

Large, four-engine planes such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 were on their way out, and the pandemic has only hastened their demise.

Last week, nostalgic onlookers gathered at vantage points outside London’s Heathrow Airport to watch the last two Boeing 747 aircrafts in British Airways take off for their final flights. One aircraft had joined British Airways in 1994, the other in 1998. Together, they had clocked 24,432 flights and 104 million miles. The airline live-streamed moments of that passing of an era on its Facebook page.

In modern civil aviation, no airplane has meant as much as the Boeing 747—a wide-bodied, four-engine plane that first flew in 1969 and could ferry about 400-600 passengers over long distances. The 747 was born out of a business imperative to fly more passengers over longer distances without stopping. Its relevance declined when relatively smaller, but more fuel-efficient planes that followed it began doing the same. Large, four-engine commercial planes such as Boeing 747, and its newer and more elaborate rival Airbus A380, were on their way out. The pandemic has only hastened their demise.

The birth of 747 was a story in itself. Boeing, an American company, began taking orders for the 747 in 1966. Such was the buzz around it that 10 airlines ordered 83 planes that year. Five were American airlines, and one each from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and UK. The following year, Air India ordered its first two 747s, and would go on to order another 17 of them between then and 1995.

Besides 1966, Boeing would have two more years when the number of orders for the 747 exceeded 80: 1986 and 1990. Till the mid-1990’s, the 747—nicknamed ‘jumbo’—dominated long-haul routes.

New orders ebbed and flowed with the state of the airline business, the evolution of technology, and competition. Airlines sought more flexibility and choices, coupled with greater efficiency. In 1991, Boeing’s European rival Airbus launched its A340, a four-engine plane. Boeing itself launched the 777 in 1994, which had two engines but could cover longer distances and ferry 300-550 passengers.

These newer-generation planes also cut flying time. At the heart of this time saving is a safety concept called extended diversion time operations (EDTO). According to the international civil aviation regulator, a plane with two engines has to choose a flight path that ensures it is never more than 60 minutes away from an airport where it can land even on one engine. Or, EDTO-60.

For short flights, this is fine, as there are airports everywhere. But for long flights, an EDTO capped at 60 minutes doesn’t always allow an airline to choose the shortest flight path possible. As technology progressed, the permissible EDTO for new models increased, even for two-engine planes. Today, planes are allowed to fly up to 370 minutes from the nearest airport (EDTO-370). Airlines use this to carve shorter routes.

The 747 took advantage of a longer EDOT. Now, other planes are doing so. The last brisk order years of the 747 were 2005 and 2006. In 2007, Airbus put out the A380, the ‘superjumbo’. It was modelled along the same lines as the 747 (wide bodied, four engines), but was capable of carrying more passengers (500-800). Demand for the A380 was led by middle-eastern airlines such as Emirates and Etihad.

Over the years, nearly every airline with significant international operations acquired 747. The list is led by Japan Airlines (108 aircraft), followed by British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa.

One by one, they are all phasing out the 747. Japan Airlines did so in 2011, United Airlines in 2017. Australian airline Qantas did it this July, with the pilot of the last flight tracing a kangaroo with its initial flight path. The pandemic has made it worse. According to Simple Flying, an aviation portal, 91% of the remaining 747s and 97% of A380s were grounded in July.

Airbus will stop making the A380 in 2021, basically negating the case for super-capacity planes. Boeing continues to make the 747, but passenger airlines don’t want it. Since 2015, Boeing has delivered 26 747s. All have either been to cargo airlines—led by UPS, with 16 planes—or the US presidential fleet.

The pandemic has decimated the 2020 order book for both Airbus and Boeing, though both have backlogs. The situation is worse for Boeing, which is also trying to recover from the two crashes of its newest 737 Max aircraft, in October 2018 and March 2019.

In its press release announcing the 747 phase out, British Airways said it does not expect the aviation sector to return to pre-pandemic levels till 2023-24. Without the pandemic, the remaining 747 would have stretched longer. For an aircraft that enabled so much for the civil aviation sector—ambition, progress, access—the pandemic is bringing its end sooner.

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