The wide-bodied Boeing 747 was once known as the queen of the skies, an instantly recognizable behemoth revered for its luxury and spaciousness.
As time passed, however, the original jumbo jet was outstripped by more efficient twin-engine planes.
Now the 747’s days as a passenger plane are numbered. Delta and United — the last two U.S. airlines that fly 747s — have said they will retire those planes from their fleet by the end of the year, 48 years after the jet first took flight.
Today, Boeing Co. produces just six 747s a year. The Chicago-based aerospace giant says it is eyeing the cargo market for new customers.
“The 747 was a fabulous airplane,” said Scott Hamilton, founder of aviation consulting firm Leeham Co. LLC. “But like any technology, it moves on.”
At the time, the big jet represented a spectacular gamble for Boeing.
Up until the 747’s debut, flying was a cramped — or more cramped — experience in narrow-body planes. When the plane rolled off an assembly line in the late 1960s, it was already larger and had longer range than later “airbus” aircraft, such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011.
Boeing poured financial resources into the 747’s development, which almost bankrupted the company as cost overruns were exacerbated by a recession that broke just as the plane made its debut. The company had to cut deals with suppliers to produce parts on their own dime. Production began while the massive Everett, Wash., assembly plant was still under construction.
Expected orders disappeared, and airlines that did buy the plane opted to install lounges in the 747’s famous hump rather than fill the plane to its 400-seat capacity. American Airlines even placed a piano bar near the back of its planes.
“It had unparalleled spaciousness,” Hamilton said. “The fliers of today are used to stepping on a 747 or 777 that has wide bodies. Back then, you’d step onto the airplane and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
In 2005, Boeing rival Airbus unveiled its own jumbo jet, the 555-seat A380. Boeing tried to counter the move by announcing plans for updated versions of the 747, but airlines weren’t interested in what they saw as an outdated plane.
More important, technology shifted to favor more fuel-efficient jets. Lighter engines were developed using more titanium and capable of generating more thrust, with more reliable turbine blades.
Twin-engine planes were eventually certified to fly over the ocean. Planes such as the Boeing 777 and 787, and Airbus A330 and 350, combined the perks of a wide body with greater fuel-efficiency. American stopped operating the 747 in the mid-1990s as it began using Boeing 767s and 777s on its long-haul international flights.
A typical 290-seat Boeing 787-9 would use about 18,400 gallons of fuel to fly from Los Angeles International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport, according to an analysis from Leeham Co. A 405-seat 747-8 passenger plane making the same trip would use about 33,000 gallons.
Now Airbus is facing a similar sales cliff with its massive A380. The company recorded no net orders last year and is working through a dwindling backlog of orders.
Staff writer Andrea Ahles contributed to this report.