After 53 years and more than 1,570 flights, the last Boeing 747 is set to roll off the assembly line in Washington state on Tuesday, headed for service as a cargo plane.
The once-groundbreaking jumbo jet, with its distinctive second-floor bulge, is perhaps the most notable and popular aircraft Boeing has ever built. It was even large enough to be used to carry the Space Shuttle from landing strips in California to the launch site in Florida. And it is set to launch a new type of spacecraft by Virgin Orbit as soon as next week, after carrying it up under its wing.
The 747 was once the choice of the rich and glamorous, and even royalty. Many films, including the 1973 James Bond classic “Live and Let Die” featured the plane, or sets made to look like a first-class lounge on the upper level. The 747 still serves as Air Force One, and two already assembled planes are undergoing work right now to be transformed into the next generation of the presidential jet. These aircraft will not be delivered for at least four years due to delays.
Apart from that use, the 747’s days as passenger aircraft are now almost entirely behind them. Airlines have moved away from planes with four fuel-guzzling engines like the 747. Rival Airbus ( EADSF ) dropped its own two-level jumbo jet, the A380, in 2019.
Boeing had signaled in 2020 that it would stop building the 747, even in its freighter form, as customers either bought the more fuel-efficient 777 freighter or saved money by refurbishing earlier 747s as freighters. It has not yet announced plans for the plant in Everett, Wash., where it has built the 747, but it expects to keep it open.
Boeing has not built a passenger version of the plane since it delivered the last one to Korean Airlines in 2017. This last 747 will go to Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW), which will operate the plane for Swiss logistics company Kuehne+Nagel. Tuesday’s final plane will be flown to another Boeing shop for paint and other final touches, before being delivered to Atlas early next year.
Today, only 44 passenger versions of the 747 remain in service, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. More than half of these – 25 – are flown by Lufthansa.
The total number is down from more than 130 in service as passenger jets at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crippled demand for air travel, particularly on international routes where 747s and other widebody jets were mainly used. Most of these passenger versions of the jets were grounded during the first months of the pandemic and never returned to service.
But there are still 314,747 cargo planes in use, according to Cirium, many of which were originally used as passenger planes before being refurbished into cargo planes.
“The 747-8 is an incredibly capable aircraft, with capabilities unmatched by any other freighter in production,” UPS said in 2020, as Boeing signaled it would soon stop building the jet. “With a maximum payload of 307,000 lbs., we use them on long, high-volume routes connecting Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.”
Boeing delivered the first 747 passenger aircraft in December 1969 to two defunct airlines – TWA and Pan Am. Delta Air Lines (DAL) was the last US airline to fly a passenger version of the plane, also in 2017. That was the last year the last American 747 passenger flights – by both Delta and United (UAL) – drew large crowds off the plane. the plane’s fans, a testament to its enduring popularity.
— CNN’s Jackie Wattles contributed to this report