As I departed Kuala Lumpur recently, our ’plane taxied past a very forlorn looking Boeing 747. It’s abundantly clear when a ’plane is never going to fly again: grime accumulates on all the upper surfaces, while the tailfin is painted in a drab, uniform colour that conceals the branding of the aircraft’s former owner – because a ’plane at the end of its life is a poor advertisement for the airline. Often, the nacelles are left gaping after the engines have been removed, too.
That ’plane, and two others like it, are in the news this week: Malaysia Airports have taken out newspaper advertising, inviting the unknown owners to claim their aircraft within fourteen days or see them disposed of.
It’s easy to talk about the end-of-life for vehicles, appliances and the like, but it’s more complicated for aircraft. Some are parked up in deserts for years, where the dry conditions minimise corrosion. In a changeable business climate, the hope is that some will return to service later on. Others are are stripped of valuable parts (nowadays, that mostly means engines) and then broken up for scrap. Where an aircraft is stranded at an airport, though, with parking charges accumulating daily, it’s simply not possible to be sentimental: if a buyer can’t be found an excavator or two will make short work of the ‘Queen of the Skies’.This is going on all the time, and the recycling rates are actually quite impressive… but the speed with which Boeing 747s are now disappearing from our airports and our skies is surprising – and the 747 isn’t just any old aeroplane. When the 747 goes, it marks the end of an era. This was the ubiquitous ’plane that became a unit of measure in its own right. (What would British journalists do if they couldn’t describe the size of things by inviting comparison with Jumbo Jets, football pitches and double-decker buses?)
For a machine that first flew in 1969 it’s had a good run, with 1,519 aircraft delivered – at a present-day list price of over $350 million a pop. Not bad for a machine that can trace its roots back to 1963, and design work done for a military project where Boeing didn’t succeed: it was the requirements of the CX-Heavy Logistics System that gave the later 747 its distinctive ‘hump’ – originally because of the need for a cavernous cargo bay on the main deck, with front loading. The contract for the military transport aircraft went to Lockheed, as the C-5 Galaxy… but some aspects of the CX-HLS design can still be seen in the DNA of the 747.
An early campaigner for the large passenger jet was Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe. He saw large capacity aircraft as a solution to airport congestion (sound familiar?) and ordered the first twenty-five, back in 1966. Back when the 747 only existed on paper, that is – and when the company didn’t have a plant big enough to assemble it, either. The difficulties they had to overcome were staggering… but they managed it, and 747s began to carry passengers in 1970.
Forty-five years is a long time in aviation, and even with a relatively recent upgrade in the form of the 747-8, it seems that the writing is on the wall. Just two were ordered this year, and none at all the year before. Peak production occurred in 1980, with 73 aircraft delivered; peak orders were 122, in 1990. With just twenty outstanding orders, now, Boeing probably won’t be able to keep the production line open for much longer.
So what new aeroplane has stolen away the market for the 747? Actually, it’s an aeroplane that’s already twenty years old: the Boeing 777. It’s smaller than the 747, but not by much, and it incorporates two engines (with very large turbofans) instead of four. That means airlines save on fuel usage and maintenance costs, as well as paying a lower price to acquire a ’plane. I was in a 777 when we taxied past that clapped-out old 747 in Kuala Lumpur. Thus far, Boeing has delivered 1,355 of the smaller jet, and there are hundreds more on order. This is the ’plane I used to refer to frequently when teaching Concurrent Engineering, thanks to Karl Sabbagh’s book, 21st Century Jet: The Making of the Boeing 777. (Boeing called it “working together”, but it was classic Concurrent Engineering, and the result was a world-beating aeroplane.)
Formerly, when an older aeroplane was no longer wanted for use on passenger routes, it stood a good chance of putting in a few years of service as a freighter. Now, that’s by no means guaranteed. Again, the 777 is the culprit. The freighter variant of the 777 scores over the 747 for the same reasons as it does in passenger usage, but there’s also the issue of belly cargo capacity for passenger flights. A passenger airline can squeeze 202 cubic meters of freight (or luggage) into a 777-300ER, as well as carrying passengers, so that’s a valuable additional revenue stream.
By contrast, an upper deck full of passengers on a 747 (or an A380 for that matter) adds weight, but does nothing to improve the cargo capacity… and you’re still stuck with those four expensive engines.
A dedicated freighter benefits from larger doors and the option of flying routes and times that aren’t attractive to passengers, but there’s no opportunity of cross-subsidy: the freight must pay its way, every time. This article in Supply Chain Brain described the air-cargo freighter as an ‘endangered species’… and that means fewer freight conversions, and faster retirements for converted aeroplanes now in service. All this accelerates the process by which the 747 will become a rare bird indeed.
Even at a time when oil is crazy-cheap (Brent crude is under $40 a barrel as I write this), it seems that for most applications four-engined aircraft are out, and two-engined is the way to go. There’s only one customer I can think of who absolutely demands four engined aircraft, and that’s the U.S. Presidential Airlift Group. They recently brought their replacement process forward, to ensure that they would still be able to obtain 747s: this purchase was the source of the order for two 747s in January of this year.
The simple fact is that engines have come a long way since the 1960s, and nowadays two are plenty. ETOPS (Extended Time On Partial Systems) rulings determine what routes an aircraft can fly, taking into account distance from airports that might be diverted to in an emergency. If you’re an industry insider, you probably refer to the standard by its other name: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim. It’s an important historical detail because of the US Civil Aviation Authority’s “60-minute rule” of 1953: that the flight path of twin-engined aircraft should not be farther than 60 minutes of flying time from an adequate airport. Thus, in the 1960s and 70s an airline wanted three- or four-engined jetliners if it was to cross oceans and the like, but this requirement is now greatly reduced.
Some 747s will still be in service for a good while yet. Some will find niche jobs such as the former Virgin Atlantic 747-400 recently announced as due for conversion into an airborne satellite launcher… but many are disappearing. Air France, once a major user of the 747 has only a single 747-based service on their schedule this winter, going between Paris and Mexico City. Passengers reports (available on SeatGuru, if you’re feeling nerdy) include failed in-flight entertainment, and a recent cancellation due to engine failure: symptoms of an aircraft approaching the end of its useful life.
Sure enough, Air France just announced that a special tribute flight on January 14th next year will mark the end of the 747 era for them. British Airways have chosen to refurbish eighteen of their Boeing 747-400s… which is a nice way to say they’re halving the size of their present-day fleet. That’s another batch of 747s for the breaker’s yard, then. Perhaps some of them will find new life, one way or another…
Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China will continue to operate the updated 747-8s that they bought more recently, but the price of oil won’t stay low forever: not least because its current low level is preventing oil industry investment, and that hints at a future shortage.
If, presently, we see another price spike like the one that peaked in July 2008… what would you make out of an unwanted 747?