More than half a century since the original jumbo jet ushered in a glamorous new era of jet aircraft, helping to bring affordable air travel to millions of passengers, the last Boeing 747 was delivered on Tuesday, marking the start of the final chapter for the well-loved plane.
In a ceremony broadcast live on the Internet, the plane was handed over to its new owner, the American air cargo operator Atlas Air, at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington.
In a dramatic opening of the sliding hangar doors, Atlas Air’s new plane was revealed behind flags bearing the liveries of every carrier that has ever taken delivery of a 747. The company has 56 aircraft in its fleet. .
Small significant detail on the last delivered: a decal just next to the nose paying tribute to Joe Sutter, chief engineer of the Boeing 747 program, who died in 2016 and considered by many to be the “father” of this famous aircraft. Members of the Sutter family, as well as Boeing family members representing company founder Bill Boeing, attended the delivery ceremony on Tuesday.
John Dietrich, president and CEO of Atlas Air Worldwide, thanked the assembly of Boeing employees.
“The impact of your work continues far beyond the production lines,” Dietrich said. “He fueled childhood dreams and career ambitions while boosting economies and global supply chains.”
Dietrich also shared a flight plan spelling out “747” the new plane is scheduled to fly on Wednesday.
A series of speakers representing companies that have trusted the 747 came to celebrate the aircraft.
“The 747 is a symbol for many, many things, and above all, I think it’s a symbol for the world, which the 747 has made considerably smaller,” said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr.
Actor and pilot John Travolta, who narrated a series of videos chronicling the plane’s colorful history, appeared to thank Boeing employees for “the most well-thought-out, safest plane ever built”.
While the final 747 won’t carry fare-paying passengers, its delivery is another milestone for the distinctive “Queen of the Skies” double-decker, which revolutionized intercontinental travel while also appearing in James Bond films and offering even rides on the back of the space shuttle. .
With the 747’s last passenger entering service more than five years ago, the end of the 747’s long career is drawing ever closer, accelerated by airlines changing their preferences to smaller, more economical planes.
Tuesday’s delivery is a long-awaited moment for the global aviation community. Waiting plane enthusiasts have followed every step of the construction of the final 747, since Boeing announced in July 2020 that it was ceasing production of its former flagship.
The plane, registered N863GT, made its first public appearance in December, when it rolled off Boeing’s assembly line coated in anti-corrosion green paint. In early January, photos appeared online of the plane, already wearing the Atlas Air livery and the Joe Sutter tribute.
Interestingly for an aircraft that predates the Apollo Moon landings (it took off a few months earlier, in February 1969), the production line of the Boeing 747 has outlived that of one of its most recent direct competitors. , the Airbus A380, which was produced between 2003 and 2021.
It was the introduction of the European double-decker aircraft in the early 2000s that prompted Boeing to announce, in 2005, a final version of the 747 design which, at that time, was already beginning to show its age.
The B747-8I (or B747-8 Intercontinental), as this latest variant of the venerable jumbo jet is called, has proven to be a swan song for big four-engined airliners.
Even though the A380 is currently enjoying a revival, as airlines rush to return stored planes to service in response to the post-Covid air traffic resumption, these sky giants are struggling to compete on operational flexibility and cost savings. of fuel for the smaller twin aircraft. motorized jets.
As of December 2022, there were only 44 passenger versions of the 747 still in service, according to aviation analysis firm Cirium. That total is down from more than 130 in service as passenger planes at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crippled demand for air travel, especially on international routes on which the 747 and other jumbo jets were mainly used. Most of these passenger versions of the jets were grounded during the early months of the pandemic and never returned to service.
Lufthansa remains the largest operator of the passenger version of the B747-8, with 19 in its current fleet and potential commitments to keep jumbo flying passengers for years, if not decades, to come.
The best of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet: in pictures
The 747 proved more popular among cargo operators. There are still 314,747 freighters in service, according to Cirium, many of which were first used as passenger jets before being refurbished as freighters.
Features such as the distinctive nose-loading capability and elevated cockpit position, leaving the full length of the lower fuselage available to carry bulky items, have made it a cargo favourite.
Tuesday’s delivery also raises questions about what will become of Boeing’s sprawling Everett factory, where the 747 has been produced since 1967.
This facility was built specifically for the Boeing 747 and is, according to the company, the largest building in the world by volume. It has since served as the main production site for Boeing’s wide-body jetliners, the 767, 777 and 787 (the best-selling narrowbody 737, however, is produced at Renton, another site in the Seattle area ).
Developments in recent years have shifted the company’s industrial center of gravity elsewhere.
In addition to losing the B747, Everett recently lost the 787 production line, after Boeing decided to consolidate production at its plant in Charleston, South Carolina.
Boeing continues to manufacture the B767 in Everett, a relatively old model with limited commercial prospects, as well as the B777, which is currently experiencing low production rates, in anticipation of its new version, the B777X. However, the latter has suffered several delays and is currently going through a certification and development process that is proving to be much longer and more complex than expected.
Although Boeing hasn’t publicly disclosed much about what it intends to do with the facilities that housed the final assembly line for the Boeing 747, as the final delivery of the jumbo nears. reports have emerged that they can be used to work on stored B787 Dreamliners.
In addition, according to these same sources, Boeing could also produce additional B737s in Everett. Production of this successful model currently takes place at another factory in Renton, further south in the greater Seattle area.
Despite the January 31 fanfare, there are still two Boeing 747 deliveries pending – and they are by no means ordinary.
These are the two new US presidential planes, which are technically referred to as the VC-25, even though they are commonly referred to as “Air Force One” (a call sign that is only used when the US President is on board).
Both of these planes have already been built, being originally intended for Russian airline Transaero, which went bankrupt in 2015. The two future Air Force Ones are currently undergoing an extensive program of modifications to prepare them for presidential service.