The last Boeing 747: farewell, Queen of the Skies

The final delivery of the iconic jumbo jet marks the end of an era.

By Bloomberg News, February 1 2023
The last Boeing 747: farewell, Queen of the Skies

The first and final 747 jumbo jet models both started with a handshake deal.

Back in the mid 1960s, the leaders of Boeing and PanAm came to an agreement that if the US planemaker pushed ahead with the audacious new design, the airline would in turn go ahead and buy the giant jetliner.

That gentleman’s agreement would kick-start one of the most successful programs in civil aviation, singlehandedly transforming the way the world flies and giving the Queen of the Skies, as the 747 came to be known, the undisputed reign over the world’s flight paths for decades to come.

No other airplane captured the public imagination quite like the hump-backed jumbo jet, nor illustrated the rewards that can flow from breathtaking risk of developing a new aircraft from the ground up.

The 747 was an emblem of era when US innovation was defined by pushing technical boundaries with moonshot projects like the Saturn V rocket – another Boeing effort.

A team led by Boeing engineer Joe Sutter designed and built the jumbo in less than two-and-a-half years, an unimaginable feat by today’s standards.

They trailblazed concepts that forever changed long-distance travel: from the 747’s twin-aisle layout to overhead bins and inflight entertainment. Early models redefined luxury travel with a spiral staircase to a swanky upper-deck lounge.

Now, following a 54-year run, Boeing has ended production of the 747.

The Boeing 747 made air travel both more affordable and more luxurious.
The Boeing 747 made air travel both more affordable and more luxurious.

When the last of the jets flies away from its Seattle-area factory on February 1, the curtain will fall on the four-engine era, after Airbus already gave up its ill-fated attempt at a rival jetliner. It axed the A380 double decker in 2019.

In total, Boeing built 1,574 of the 747 model, from passenger versions to freighters to special editions like a NASA-commissioned version that carried the Space Shuttle or the Air Force One for US presidents.

Over the past decade, the giant aircraft was eclipsed by smaller, more nimble models like Boeing’s own 777 or the Airbus A350 that only have two engines but still manage to fly the same routes, albeit at much lower operating costs.

The Boeing 747 was the backbone of Qantas' long-range international fleet.
The Boeing 747 was the backbone of Qantas' long-range international fleet.

The last iteration of the 747 also owed its existence to a handshake.

This time, it happened at a dinner at Seattle’s upscale Fairmont Hotel in the mid-2000s where Lufthansa executives were pressing their Boeing counterparts to upgrade the 747 with technology being created for its most advanced jet, the 787 Dreamliner.

Listening with rapt attention: Joe Sutter, the legendary father of the 747, then well into his 80s and long retired but still a force to be reckoned with inside Boeing.

“He turned to his senior management leadership team and said, ‘Guys, just do it,’” recalled Nico Buchholz, at the time a Lufthansa executive who attended the gathering. “As history has shown, they did it and Lufthansa did buy it.”

End of the line: the Boeing 747-8 'Intercontinental'.
End of the line: the Boeing 747-8 'Intercontinental'.

And while the 747-8, as that line was dubbed, wasn’t a resounding sales success, freighter versions of that plane could still be flying as late as the 2050s, like the final model being delivered this week, to cargo carrier Atlas Air.

Aviation’s advancements, from the 747 to the Concorde to the Space Shuttle, had long been driven by the goal of going further, faster and higher. But over time, another consideration has come into play: cost.

Airbus’s debacle with the A380, arguably the last time a manufacturer penned a radical new design layout, only strengthened a new mantra of finessing and improving existing airframes rather than pushing the boundaries of what’s physically and economically possible.

Boeing has said that it won’t come up with a new aircraft design this decade, underscoring a management ethos that puts efficiency before experiments.

No other aircraft encapsulates that approach quite like the A320 and 737 Max models, which are essentially more fuel-efficient versions of planes conceived decades ago and account for the vast majority of deliveries – and profit – and both planemakers.

That low-risk mindset notwithstanding, a new wave of innovation is beginning taking shape, driven by climate change and an urgent need to curb emissions.

Boeing plans to build and test-fly with NASA a full-scale prototype of a narrowbody jet with extra-long, thin wings that could eventually succeed the 737, while Airbus pursues breakthroughs with fuels, like hydrogen. Upstarts like Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are looking to replace ground transport with flying taxis.

“There will be significant improvements,” said Buchholz. Only this time, “it will start with small aircraft.”

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

Malaysia Airlines - Enrich

21 Mar 2014

Total posts 22

We are flying Singapore to Frankfurt with Lufthansa Business on their 747 800 in April and really looking forward to it.  There is something special about going up the stairs to the cosy, private area on the upper deck. It may not have the seating with direct aisle access but travelling as a couple it is just perfect.

01 Jul 2021

Total posts 38

This is one of the most sad days in aviation of all times R.I.P a flying legend.

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1525

I definitely will miss it. My last flight on B747 was if remember correctly in 2013 with BA from SIN to LHR. Upper deck and super-private last window seat. It is really sad that QF went A380 route - flown it and can say nothing wrong about experience, but outside it is plainly ugly while B747-8 even better than original. Plane that changed flights forever and marked epoch in aviation. RIP.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Nov 2018

Total posts 107

The A380 is WAYYYYY better. Headspace alone is amazing compared to B747-4, especially in Y! The ride is soother, quieter and just feels better (than 747-4) overall.

Now, don't get me wrong; I have a lot of good (and bad) memories on the 747. I'll miss it nostalgically, the way I miss my first car... 

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1525

To be honest my best sleep from Europe to Asia was in A380. Yet IMHO it is ugly outside, just hangar with wings. FWIW all airbuses quite ugly with exception of 340 and of course 350. While B747 and especially so B747-8 is absolute beauty.

23 Jul 2017

Total posts 99

As there will no longer be business class sleeping "pods", there'll also be no more the comforting roar of the great engines on the Queen as we cross the Pacific.

I thought I'd enjoy flying on the 787 on its first international flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles in December 2017. Yes, there was the 1-2-1 configuration and the lie-flat bed, but that was so close to the floor and the dust mites raised as anyone walked down the aisle. My enthusiasm quickly cooled. I've since travelled in all 747 classes and all give me claustrophobia.

Farewell, beautiful Queen, but those aeroplanes still in service, fly safely carrying cargo and with passengers in Lufthansa 747-8s.

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1525

Cannot get - you have claustrophobia in 747 or 787?

03 Oct 2011

Total posts 34

I have many fond memories of flying 747s. CX with their "coffin" business class seats upstairs, BA and QF in 1AK in the nose -- the curvature of the fuselage meant that from seats 1A or 1K one could see forward, and the two seats were close enough for people flying together to interact. My spouse and I flew CX HNG-JNB in F a few times where we were the only F passengers. Decades ago, I flew QF in coach from SYD to HNL on a 747-Combi (half the lower deck was passengers, the other half cargo). I asked an FA if I could see the cockpit, and to my surprise she said yes, once dinner service was over. I went up there and rode most of the way next to the flight engineer, who showed me his job (all automated on newer aircraft). It was fascinating.

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1525

It was possible decades ago. Nowadays do not even bother to ask. You are very lucky.

03 Oct 2011

Total posts 34

Yes, it was possible in the old days, before 9/11 and "abundance of caution."


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on The last Boeing 747: farewell, Queen of the Skies