He was the embodiment of a golden age of civil aviation. When the first Boeing 747 took off from New York for London on February 9, 1969, it symbolized a new era. The first aircraft to have two corridors, equipped with four engines, able to accommodate nearly 500 passengers, it is the result of the ambition of the legendary American airline Pan Am to revolutionize air transport, by massively opening up the transatlantic route.
Because beyond its technological innovations, Boeing’s “jumbo-jet”, also nicknamed “the queen of the skies”, was the undeniable figure of the democratization of air transport at the end of the 20th century. “The 747 opened up the world,” notes Michel Merluzeau, aeronautical expert for the AIR firm. It enabled the middle class to venture outside of Europe or the United States with ticket prices becoming more affordable, including during the oil crisis of the 1970s.”
“The 747 opened the world”
The 747, recognizable by its bump in the front of its fuselage, represented at the end of the 1960s the fruit of the labor of more than 50,000 employees – builders, mechanics, engineers – at the Everett factory near Seattle. , the largest then ever built. Symbolically, it is precisely in this historic place that thousands of former and current Boeing employees gather on Tuesday, January 31 to celebrate the last delivery of this legendary model to the American company Atlas Air.
If the 747 marked its era so much, it is also because it remained almost without competition until the arrival on the market of the Super Jumbo A380 from Airbus, in 2005 only. Since 1969, Boeing has constantly tried to improve and modernize its XXL long-haul aircraft, in order to remain at the forefront in this sector. From its first version, the 747-100, to the 747-8, its last, seven main models and nearly 1,574 copies of the jumbo jet will be sold by the American aircraft manufacturer.
An aircraft more suited to demand
But the arrival on the market of more innovative and fuel-efficient long-haul aircraft, whether at Boeing with the 777 model, but also at Airbus with the A350, marks a withdrawal of “the queen of the skies “. The 747 also suffered the brunt of a change in air transport practices, with the rise of low-cost models more focused on medium than long-haul, from the 1990s. Business class and first class, which allowed Boeing to reap significant profits, are relegated to the background. The priority is then no longer gigantism, but the multiplication of smaller and less expensive models.
This turning point is notably taken with great strides by Airbus, symbolized by the decision of the European manufacturer to stop production from 2019 of their competing model to the 747, the A380. Boeing will still persist somewhat in this strategy, before finally abandoning the production of its wide-body aircraft on July 30, 2020, which is too expensive and has no real demand.
The latest model of the “queen of the skies”, the 747-8, launched in 2005, has thus only been sold in 48 copies in the passenger version, and 107 in its cargo configuration. In the United States, Boeing’s native country, no civilian company has been flying it with passengers since the end of 2017.
Finally, the paralysis of air transport due to the health crisis was the last nail in the coffin of the 747, with many companies such as British Airways or Qantas separating from their last “jumbo-jets”. So today, while Airbus is flourishing and should be quite largely in surplus in 2022, Boeing has announced a loss of nearly $ 5 billion over the past year, the fourth consecutive year in the red. .
Still used in cargo model
This latest delivery does not mean that we will no longer see the mythical plane bumping into the sky in the next few years. Its cargo version, in particular, should still provide many services. “It’s a unique aircraft for transporting large industrial parts such as engines for ocean liners or drills in the oil industry,” explains Michel Merluzeau. Especially since some of its competing models produced by the Ukrainian manufacturer Antonov “were damaged by the war in Ukraine”, adds the aeronautical expert.
The Boeing aircraft will also continue to serve more symbolic functions. Air Force One, the official plane of American presidents, has been a 747 since 1990. It should remain so for years to come, while two copies are still being modified to replace the current models. For Michael Lombardi, historian of the Boeing company, “even on its 100th anniversary in 2069, there will still be Boeing 747s flying! “.
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