Boeing is delivering its final 747 jumbo jet on Tuesday after a ceremony at the company’s factory in Washington state.
The jet has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, transport for NASA’s space shuttles and the Air Force One presidential aircraft since it first took flight in 1969. It revolutionized travel by connecting international cities that never had direct routes, while also helping to democratize passenger flight.
In the past 15 years, however, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and fuel-efficient wide-body planes that have just two engines, compared to the 747′s four. The final plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.
A crowd of current and former Boeing workers is expected to be in attendance for the final send-off, and the last jet is being delivered to cargo carrier Atlas Air.
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“If you love this business, you’ve been dreading this moment,” aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia said. “Nobody wants a four-engine airliner anymore, but that doesn’t erase the tremendous contribution the aircraft made to the development of the industry or its remarkable legacy.”
Boeing decided to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A. It was designed to take advantage of the new engines developed for the transport and use them for civilian aircraft. These high-bypass turbofan engines burned less fuel by passing air around the engine core, which enabled a longer flight range.
More than 50,000 Boeing workers built the first 747 in less than 16 months, earning them the nickname, “The Incredibles.” The jet’s production required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, which is located north of Seattle, the world’s largest building by volume. The jet’s fuselage was 225 feet long. The plane’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane. Some airlines turned the second deck into a first-class cocktail lounge, and the lower deck sometimes even had lounges or a piano bar.
“It was the first big carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to figure out what to do with it, and how to fill it,” said Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College who specializes in aviation and mobility. “It became the essence of mass air travel: You couldn’t fill it with people paying full price, so you need to lower prices to get people onboard. It contributed to what happened in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air travel.”
The first 747 entered service in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route, shortly before the oil crisis of 1973 and during a recession that forced Boeing to cut its employment numbers from 100,800 workers in 1967 to 38,690 in April 1971.
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An updated model of the jet, the 747-400 series, arrived in the late 1980s with better timing, as it came with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s, Aboulafia said.
The last U.S. airline to use the 747 for passenger flights was Delta, which stopped using the jets in 2017. Other international carriers, including the German airline Lufthansa, continue to fly the plane.
Atlas Air ordered four 747-8 freighters in early 2022, and the final one leaves the factory on Tuesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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