There’s been a lot written in 2017 on the maligned and anticipated retirement of the Boeing 747 from U.S. airlines this year. A big driver of coverage (including this author’s) has been the nostalgia around the plane, which has afforded fliers an incomparable experience of grandeur and comfort since its introduction nearly 40 years ago. But nostalgia isn’t the only significant part of this bittersweet moment in aviation history.
Decisions about aircraft purchases being made now indicate a travel future very different than when the 747 thrived.
Even on the large trunk routes they serve, Delta and United have replaced 747s not with modern jumbo jets, but with smaller, leaner airplanes. Orders for large jets have been cut, and in many cases traded for smaller variants of airplanes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. Orders for 747s and Airbus A380 super-jumbo jets have dwindled to near-zero.
The airline of the future is not one built on scale of hubs and aircraft, but one that creates much more intimate connections between cities large and small. New Boeing 787 Dreamliner routes between small cities like Hartford and Edinburgh are just the beginning.
Routes once unimaginable — think Cleveland to Lyon, Hiroshima to Hamburg, Phuket to Perth — are approaching feasibility. A new version of a decades-old Boeing juggernaut, the 737MAX, makes such obscure long-haul flights a legitimate possibility.
The 747 was a decidedly American approach to the breakthrough era of airtravel. While a European consortium that would later form the bones of Airbus bankrupted itself on pursuit of an airplane — The Concord — to propel upper classes at twice the speed of sound, Boeing’s alternate fate rested on a jet that could move masses around the globe at scales of efficiency that would change societies and the world at large.
The egalitarian heft of the 747 won the day for Boeing, and eventually won history, outlasting the Concord for a still indefinite future. Irony is that the legacy of ever-greater efficiency the jumbo jet first created eventually sowed the plane’s demise.
Point Me To The Plane is wrapping up the year looking back at the most significant developments in aviation and travel. What will you remember most from the past year? Share with usin the comments below.