This article was written by AeroTime's contributing author Edgaras Feiginas. The opinion of the authors does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team. Want your opinion to be featured on AeroTime? Send us a line at [email protected].

Almost 50 years ago, the iconic 747 was born at Boeing’s Everett factory near Seattle, the United States. Know as the “jumbo jet”, the world’s major airplane for long haul flights, reshaping the concept of in-flight comfort and air travel, allowing people to fly further and cheaper. The airplane was a large success both for Boeing and aviation industry as a whole, allowing airlines to use more fuel efficient planes and transport more passengers. For many years, the 747 was the symbol of commercial aviation and the most recognizable airplane around the world. But as we stepped into a new millennium, things started to change dramatically.

Giant’s problems

The jumbo jet was leading the aviation almost for three decades, when at the end of the 1990s Boeing made a bet on a different type of planes – wide body, twin engine – the 777s and 787s. These two modern airplanes were highly successful and allowed Boeing to completely rethink their strategy and to embark on a different, more efficient path. Today, Boeing representatives are no longer afraid to acknowledge that super-jumbos may soon leave the market.

In June 2017, Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president of marketing, claimed that the company does not see a demand for big planes like the 747-8s or Airbus A380s, saying that it would be “a handful moving forward”, according to CNN.

Things are not going well with Boeing’s main rival - the Airbus, either. As in the 747’s case, Airbus aircraft are expensive in terms of operation:  four engines of A380 have a big fuel appetite and costly maintenance. Since its commercial introduction in 2007, the A380 was announced sustainable only in February 2018, according to Didier Evrard, executive vice president head of programs at Airbus.

The history of the jumbo jet

The Boeing 747, being displayed to the public for the first time. SAS Scandinavian Airlines 

In the 1960s, the USSR and the French with the British were thinking that supersonic flights are the future, creating the Tu-144 and the Concorde. Meanwhile, Americans preferred size and economic performance.

The story of the jumbo jet began in 1963, when the U.S. Air Force placed an order for a heavy transport aircraft, and Boeing joined the program with their new development of military transport aircraft that could be converted to an air tanker.

But in September of 1965, the competition was won by Lockheed Martin with their new C-5 Galaxy.  It was a huge disappointment for Boeing, but the management of the company decided they can use technological developments for creating a new commercial aircraft.

The idea of a big passenger airplane was largely supported by Pan American Airway’s autocratic founder Juan Trippe, who was the most powerful person in aviation at the time. It was a truly risky project both for Boeing and Pan American, and nobody knew the perspectives of the airplane.

Because the idea of supersonic flights was so powerful during the era, Boeing started to develop the 747 as a cargo-passenger plane, with the idea that in case of failure they can easily convert it for the cargo market. The only thing that could save the project was its success.

On February 9, 1969, the Boeing 747 made it first flight. Pan American promised to start using the 747 in 1970, and they kept the promise. On January 22, 1970, the jumbo jet made its first commercial flight from New York, U.S., to London, UK.

The iconic aircraft was highly appreciated for its comfort, reliability and, of course, its 400 passenger capacity. It could travel faster, further and it was more fuel efficient than any other jet of that time.

Every airline wanted to have it, it was a symbol of prestige and success, and soon all major American operators had the plane within their fleet.

New players in the game

Airbus A380 go around/aborted landing at "Internationalen Luftfahrtausstellung Berlin 2006". Tino "Scorpi" Keitel 

Leading the world of aviation with 30 years of global dominance, the iconic 747 started to fade since the late 1990s. When the Boeing 777 came out in 1993, airlines started to see a perspective in the new airplane, which could fly just as far as the 747, but without the burden of filling 400 seats.

Thus, airlines slowly started to replace the aging 747, with key operators like American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) and Continental Airlines gradually switching to other aircraft. The retirements steadily accelerated the 787 and A350 market growth, leaving no place for the legendary jumbo.

The superjumbo aircraft surpasses the 747 in many ways: it is modern and highly capacious, with the ability to carry more than 600 passengers on board. At the same time, the 747 remained popular for cargo transportation. The aviation market had no alternative for Boeing’s giant, until situation changed in the early 1990s, when McDonnell Douglas and Airbus decided to create their own jumbo jet – the A380.

McDonnell Douglas failed to create its own superjumbo aircraft named the MD-12, when the company did not receive any orders from airlines, despite the fact that the project was truly expensive and technologically complex.

Meanwhile, Airbus was doing much better than McDonnell Douglas. The European manufacturer was mainly targeting the Asian market, thinking that it will generate a massive passenger flow both to the U.S. and the EU.

The A380 made its first flight on April 27, 2005. Entering into service with Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) , the aircraft made its first commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney, Australia on October 25, 2007.

Nowadays, Emirates remains the main operator of the A380: with more than 100 aircraft in its fleet, and Airbus is heavily dependent on their orders.

In November 2017, Emirates booked an order for 40 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, although Airbus was counting on the purchase of the A380. But in January 2018, after a long standoff and negotiations, Emirates placed an order for 20 additional A380s, with an option for 16 more, extending the lifeline of the A380 program for another decade. Nevertheless, the long-term future of the aircraft remains under question.

In 2011, Boeing came with a new version of the 747, the 747-8i, with orders from Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) , Air Korea and Air China. The new aircraft family includes both passenger and cargo versions, as well as some modifications. But Boeing’s bid on the smaller and more efficient aircraft, as time has shown, was the right step for the American manufacturer.

New generation taking the lead

First flight of Boeing 787 Dreamliner, December 15,2009. Dave Sizer

In 2007, Boeing introduced the 787 Dreamliner, a midsize, wide-body, long-haul, twin-engine jet. It is a highly efficient aircraft made with composite materials that offer lower cost of travel in terms of seat cost per mile. This plane allowed airlines to fly directly to smaller regional airports instead of using large hub airports, where passengers needed to proceed for transfer flights.

Compared to both the A380 and the 747, the Dreamliner was a perfect solution for airlines in terms of cost reduction and fuel efficiency. Within 10 years, Boeing received orders for almost 1,300 aircraft, with more than 630 in service.

Airbus came back with their new A350 model, which was built to replace the existing A340. It is a direct rival of the 787 and 777, and as of January 2018, the European manufacturer received 854 orders for this aircraft. Combining all these factors, the heavyweight jumbo jets are losing their potential and credibility.

Boeing, which recently released its annual 20 year forecast, said there is no significant demand left for building new passenger 747s or A380s, believing that airlines will continue to prefer twin-engine aircraft like the 777X or the A350.

"Frankly we really don't see much demand for really big airplanes," said Randy Tinseth, Boeing vice president of marketing in June, 2017, according to CNN. "There will just be a handful moving forward. Things we do for VIPs, things we do for the president, military operations, but we don't see a significant demand for passenger 747-8s or A380s."

According to Andrei Kramarenko, the expert of Institute of transport economics and transport policy at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, airlines prefer to do more flights on airplanes with a lower capacity, forming a “few connection waves”, Lenta.ru reports.

“For example you have a hub in France. If you start to perform the flights with the limited frequency to China, it would be logical to put A380 on a Shanghai route, because of the big demand. In case of minor city, for example like Guangzhou, Dalian or Xi’an – there is no point to use A380”
 

The A380 was built according to hub and spoke concept, meaning that if you want to get to a minor city, first you have to fly to a bigger city like Shanghai, which allows airlines to fill a huge airplane like the A380. But the smaller airplanes like the 787 or A350 were built for a different concept – point to point travel.

Even though some routes are less popular, because of the fuel efficiency of these planes it made such flights possible, allowing airlines to save on fuel. In aviation these minor cities are called “focus” cities, and primary target is local passengers rather than passengers who have connecting flights.

“With the old scheme on the route from Berlin to Shenyang you would have to do two transfers – in Frankfurt and Beijing. At this moment, some of the German airlines by receiving 787 or A350 can go ahead with only one transfer in Frankfurt,” Kramarenko says.

According to another specialist, Oleg Panteleev, the head of the analytical service of Aviaport group, twin engine, narrow body planes truly become more fuel efficient, and that they deprive the giants of their main advantage – lower cost of passenger per mile.

Naturally, the market for that kind of aircraft will be there for a long time, but at this moment, it becomes obvious that there is no need for an endless amount of it. The narrow body airplane market can easily put up with three manufacturers, but in the case of big wide-body airplanes, the market is tight even for two of them, Lenta.ru reports.

The unclear future

At this day, Boeing still has 747-8I to deliver, according to their official order book. 14 jumbo freighters will go to UPS, one will go to the Korean Air, and another one to unidentified head of state.

According to CNN, Korean have no future plans for buying new 747 or A380, currently operating both of them.

By the end of 2017, Delta and United, the biggest American airlines, have both retired their 747s, and since the start of the 747-8 production, no U.S. airline has purchased it. In February 2018, UPS made an order for 14 freighters, helping to keep program afloat.

Summarizing all these factors, there is a clear pattern of uncertainty regarding the two world’s biggest passenger airplanes. Surely we are still going to see the 747, as there are nearly 500 airplanes in service, according to FlightGlobal Ascend.

Speaking about the main jumbo jet rival, the A380, there are more than 220 airplanes in service, with Emirates being the main operator. The big price, costly maintenance and the development of a new, more cost efficient and environmental friendly airplanes are putting the future existence of the 747 and the A380 under a big question.