A familiar sight will soon disappear from the US skies. No, we’re not talking about the sun but the jumbo jet. Having been the mainstay of most airlines for almost fifty years, the iconic 747 now faces retirement.
In its heyday, the numbers used by US airlines peaked at 130 (in 1990). Today, they’re down to just 27 with Delta and United the last remaining passenger operators to use them. Delta is soon to swop its last remaining 747-400s with Airbus 350-900s and United will retire its last 747-100 next month.
Their retirement brings to an end one of the most successful aircraft of all time. The longest-range commercial airliner (capable of flying 13,300km) the Jumbo opened up air routes between the US and Asia, as well as Europe. And although air crew probably resented the fact that the -400 could be flown with just two pilots, most have gone on record saying what a great plane it was to fly.
Not surprisingly, using an engine that was developed over half a century ago means that airlines can now use aircraft that offer considerable fuel and cost savings. United predicts that the move to the Boeing 777-300ER from the 747-400 will result in about 20% more fuel efficiency per seat; a huge saving, while the improved operational reliability of the more modern aircraft should add an extra percentage point in savings too. And given that some airlines have stopped carrying olives onboard in an effort to save money then these sorts of savings can make all the difference.
The airline industry is noted for being extremely competitive but its senior management clearly have hearts too. Scott Kirby, the president of United Airlines told his staff that “it’s a bittersweet milestone – [the 747] with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state of the art in air travel”.
So farewell Jumbo. And thank you. It’s impossible to estimate how many miles you’ll have flown or how many passengers you carried. But by helping international meetings and reuniting friends and families, your impact on people’s lives has been immense.