Jumbo Jets

Twilight of the 747

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Cruise lines gave ocean liners redolent names to conjure the glamour of long-distance travel. Same thing with jetliners. It’s no coincidence that Pan American World Airways borrowed cruise-ship monikers like “Queen of the Pacific,” “Crest of the Wave,” and “Belle of the Seas” for the hulking Boeing 747s that opened up intercontinental travel more than 40 years ago. Now jumbo jets are acquiring another similarity to ocean liners: Their romance has faded. Like big ships, they’re still useful for hauling cargo. But when it comes to passengers, they’ve been eclipsed by more efficient twin-engine models as high fuel prices reshape aviation’s notion of progress. Without a freight-market revival, the era of four-engine jetliners may be drawing to a close.

The Situation

Boeing had just one order in the first half of 2014 for the iconic humpbacked 747 that’s still the best-selling wide-body in history, with 1,538 orders since 1966. Sales slowed after the 2008 oil-price spike, and Boeing cut 747 production twice last year. An overhauled U.S. presidential fleet, slated to debut in 2023, may mark the jumbo’s last hurrah. Airbus‘s A380 superjumbo isn’t tearing up the market, either. The double-decker plane, which typically seats about 525 people, is still a money loser for the European planemaker with just 324 total orders since it went on the market in 2000, and no new airline customers in two years.

Source: Bloomberg Industries
Source: Bloomberg Industries

The Background

Boeing engineers saw the travel and cargo-hauling capacities promised by the jet age in the 1960s and created the 747 with the range to cross oceans and a staircase and upper lounge to redefine luxury. The plane was dominant in the 1980s as newly deregulated U.S. carriers created hub-and-spoke networks capable of filling aircraft that seated 400 people. Then the 1990s brought a new generation of long-range jetliners led by Boeing’s 777, capable of flying just as far, but on two engines to the jumbo’s four. Their lower operating costs and smaller size allowed airlines to bypass congested hubs, and to offer more daily flights on popular routes without fear that a surplus of seats would sink prices. Large two-engine planes like the 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A350 and Boeing’s new 777X have bypassed the jumbos with innovation redefined by fuel-efficient engines and carbon composite hulls or wings.

The Argument

Mark Lapidus, a Russian-born financier, is betting that airlines will turn back to the largest jets. Amedeo, his leasing company, ordered 20 Airbus A380s on spec, calculating that airlines have only begun to see revenue possibilities from jumbo cabins tailored to luxury-minded travelers. He’s thinking of a broader market than one limited to passengers who can afford Emirates’ first-class showers or Etihad’s flying apartment. And shipping companies will still need the nose-loading capabilities offered by Boeing’s 747 freighters. But sales for passenger versions of the jets will only get tougher when the 777X debuts in 2020, says aviation consultant Robert Mann. It will be the first twin-engine jetliner designed to carry a jumbo’s load of 400 passengers. “Now that fuel is one-third of everybody’s costs and higher, you can’t afford to have an inefficient airplane,” Mann said. “It will eat you alive.”

The Reference Shelf

  • The TV series “Great Planes” included a 53-minute segment about the 747.
  • Boeing has a history of the 747 at its website, where it continues to promote new versions.
  • Quartz, taking note of the obsolescence of the 747 in June, includes charts showing the plane’s market share.

First Published July 14, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Julie Johnsson in Chicago at jjohnsson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net