Is the Boeing 747 failing due to Airbus A380

Is the Boeing 747 failing due to Airbus A380? Why have all airlines started to retire their B747?

Is the Boeing 747 failing due to Airbus A380As for passengers, the Boeing 777 is beating out the A380 and the 747–8i. It is all about carrying the correct number of passengers over long routes in a very cost-effective manner and the several twin-engine versions of the 777 do that just fine. And for the slightly smaller routes there are the A350 and the Boeing 787.

Boeing will do just fine with the 747–8F and Airbus will keep bleeding money with the A380.

Enjoy your flight. I do hear that the Emirates version of the A380 is wonderful if you are in the top deck: 

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The Boeing 747 was, and is, never a failure. Over 1,500 747s have been built. The 747 has become one of the world’s most recognisable airplanes. The success of the 747 saved Boeing from bankruptcy.

The Boeing 747 is never a failure. It is a success. It is a symbol of Boeing. No other airplane can dethrone the 747 as the Queen Of The Skies.

So, to the person asking this question: Please don’t ever use that f-word to describe the 747 ever again, ever.

Why have all airlines started to retire their B747?

An excellent question. Here is my answer:

The Boeing 747 is a four-engine airliner, first produced in 1968. It has been in service for over 47 years since January 22, 1970. Right now, the 747 is quickly being retired from passenger service, but it will likely remain in service as cargo freighters for a while. In fact, the 747 was originally designed to be a freighter. With the cockpit situated on the upper deck, the colossal nose of the plane could serve as a large cargo door, like so:

Today, most of the 747s slated to be retired are the passenger variants of the 747–400, and a handful of earlier models (for instance, the 747–300). The most recently updated 747 models, the 747–8I and 747–8F (pictured above), were introduced in 2011. (I = intercontinental [i.e. passenger variant], F = freighter variant) They are not going to get retired any time soon.

The 747 has been continuously improved and refined by Boeing throughout the years. Boeing makes new variants of the 747 to help keep it up to date and more appealing to travellers, and of course, to compete with the ginormous Airbus A380. But the overarching intent of Boeing is always to reduce fuel consumption of its planes as much as possible and ultimately to minimise operating costs for airlines.

This is paramount for operators. Today’s airlines buy and operate planes that suit the routes they operate, consume the least fuel and have the lowest operating costs, in order to maximise profits while offering competitive prices to travellers.

Even though the 747 has received refinements over the generations to reduce fuel consumption, such as new engines and winglets, one design remains: the need for four engines to operate. The more engines a plane has, the more fuel it will consume, the more expensive it will be to operate, the more amount of maintenance work it will need, and ultimately, the less lucrative it will be. The 747’s design is simply outdated, because there are much more efficient airplanes today that are on par with the 747’s performance. Airlines are also shifting towards the use of smaller airplanes with range similar to the 747.

The last time the 747 was widely successful was when the 747–400 debuted more than 29 years ago, in 1988. At that time, the quad-engine 747 was probably considered the most ideal plane for long-haul flights. It was one of the few airliners that could fly transoceanic flights, between Asia and America, for example. At that time, less fuel hungry twin engine planes like the 767 and Airbus A300 were limited to flights not too far away from a diversionary airport. This was because twin engine planes were perceived to be less reliable and should one engine fail, it was assumed that the plane would be in critical danger. As such, these planes must always be in close proximity to a suitable airport that allowed for an emergency landing. This meant no flying over remote areas, i.e. over oceans. Hence, Boeing was able to sell the four engine 747–400 successfully during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However, during the mid 1990s, a pivotal change in FAA regulations allowed the Boeing 767 to fly 3 hours (180 minutes) away from a diversionary airport for the first time, opening up the possibility of transoceanic flights operated by a twin-engine plane. This regulation was known as ETOPS, or Extended Operations, that basically permits how far a twin engine airliner can be away from a diversionary airport. The 767 was not a counterpart to the 747, as it was smaller. But coincidentally around this time, the eventual successor of the 747 was also born. It is the Boeing 777. Despite offering slightly less seating capacity, this plane has a similar range to that of the 747, and it has two engines, not four. As I have mentioned previously, airlines look for airplanes that are the most profitable. Remember, the more engines a plane has, the less lucrative it will be. Hence, in the eyes of airlines, the 777 is far more efficient and profitable than the 747, and it picked up orders rapidly.

The Boeing 767 pioneered twin engine, long haul oceanic flights, jeopardising the 747’s route monopoly (and the DC 10’s, but that airplane is not in the question and I don’t want to make this answer any more complicated). Then the 777 entered the market and in a way, became an inadvertent competitor to the 747. The 777 sold stupendously well, and has amassed over 1,900 orders to date, with over 1,500 delivered in just over 23 years since first flight in 1994.

The 777 was first introduced into service in 1995. Today, the 777–300ER (ER = extended range) is one of the most ubiquitous modern wide body jetliner. Many airlines opt to replace the 747 with the 777, because it is much more fuel efficient, much less expensive to operate, it is new and it matched the performance of the 747. The 747–400, the most popular 747 model, has served many airlines well but not only are they less profitable, they are ageing.

This is a representation of the average age of aircraft types in Delta Air Line’s fleet on airfeets.net:

(Blue numbers mean number of airplanes of their respective type in the fleet)

These statistics aren’t the most reliable but you get the gist of it: the 747s are way older than the 777s.

Boeing has been producing the 777 so expeditiously that it took just over 23 years for the 1,500th 777 to be produced, whereas for the 747, it took more than 45 years to achieve the same feat. Most of the older 747s are retired, so the 747s left to be retired “soon” are the passenger-carrying 747–400s. With so many new 777s delivered to many operators (and future ex-operators) of the 747, like United Airlines, and with no new 747–400s made, it is justifiable that older airplanes need to be removed from service so newer airplanes can enter service. The passenger versions of the 747–400s are all 15–20 years old by now and their time is up. The deterioration of the 747s from use instinctively prompts many passenger airlines to retire them from service. Concurrently, the 777 arrives at a very opportune time to give airlines a great, new, more efficient airplane to replace their ageing and less lucrative 747s.

In conclusion, the 747’s obsolete 47+ year old design that requires four engines to fly (ideally), the introduction of revised ETOPS regulations, and the arrival of the twin engine 777 airplane at the right time contributed to the retirement of the passenger-carrying 747s. This all boils down to airlines choosing to operate the most profitable airplanes with the most efficient designs.

There’s a video that explains ETOPS in much more detail and another video that details the economics of four engine airplanes versus twin engine airplanes. This video also covers the trending concept of “long and skinny” airplane routes, that is plied by the beautiful Boeing 787s. These routes reduce demand for one flight operated by one large airplane with many seats (like the 747) in favour of multiple flights plied by smaller airplanes. Please feel free to check them out as they provide a comprehensive answer to the question.

Update: Check out United Airline’s farewell video for the 747. The last flight of United’s ‘Queen of the Skies’ was on November 7, 2017.

⁽⁽ଘ(flies away)ଓ⁾⁾

5 / 5 stars     

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