U.S. Airlines Left The 747 Behind in 2017; What They Replace It With Matters

by John Harper

United bid farewell to one its its staple aircraft, the Boeing 747, in 2017. Photo by John Harper

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.

United employees, family and aviation geeks clamored to get an intimate look at the airline’s last 747. Photo by John Harper

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.

A look inside a GE engine on a United Airlines Boeing 787-9. Photo by John Harper

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.

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Philco December 20, 2017 - 6:54 pm

Very excited to be flying a 747-8 on the upper deck next year. Btw Concorde the plane was spelled the French way with an e on the end even in English. The caused some consternation in the UK back in the day.

USBusinessTraveller December 20, 2017 - 10:34 pm

“New Boeing 787 Dreamliner routes between small cities like Hartford and Edinburgh are just the beginning.”
There are no Dreamliners flying BDL-EDI. Those flights (Norwegian Air International/D8, on the Irish AOC) fare on 7M8.

While generally I agree with the article, note that United’s main 747 replacement is the 777-300ER with 366 seats, just 6-8 fewer than their 744. There are fewer of them (77W vs 744) but United is still servicing a lot of high volume trunk routes.

United’s strategy re the Dreamliners is incremental aircraft flying long thin routes, many previously not viable. While US non stops to Singapore were flown by special aircraft for Singapore Airlines, United is using a standard 787-9. And there are also SFO-Tel Aviv, SFO-Chengdu and (coming) Houston-Sydney and SFO-Papeete.


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