When Boeing introduced the 747, the four-engine jet quickly became an icon of modern air travel. The 747 was designed at a time when Boeing felt it might be quickly replaced by supersonic aircraft — the distinctive double-decker hump at the front of the plane that now typically offers additional first-class seating was intended to allow for an external cargo door if passengers shifted to faster aircraft. Now, with orders falling, Boeing is considering halting production on one of the most successful and long-lived jet families in history.
The current version of the 747 is known as the 747-8. It’s a 250 ft jet with a redesigned wing, raked wingtips, additional internal fuel capacity, and fly-by-wire capability for lateral controls. According to Boeing, the new international version of the 747, the 747-8I, is 30% quieter, 16% more fuel efficient, and offers 13% lower seat costs per mile. The problem, for Boeing, is that not enough customers are actually ordering the 747-8. The company has therefore warned that “If we are unable to obtain sufficient orders and/or market, production and other risks cannot be mitigated, we could record additional losses that may be material, and it is reasonably possible that we could decide to end production of the 747.”
Customers have been moving away from four-engine widebody aircraft and towards more efficient twin-engine planes with lower operating costs. Boeing’s 777 and 787 continue to be popular, and it’s not the only widebody company facing a large-scale slowdown. The Airbus A380 may also be headed for an early retirement, thanks to a near-total lack of interest in the world’s largest jet.
The Airbus A380 is a true double-decker jet and the world’s largest passenger jet, but airports that use it had to build new facilities to handle the plane. While it sits between 525 and 853 people depending on the class configuration, its bulk means that relatively few airports can handle the plane. Many US carriers prefer to fly multiple times per day between destinations as a way to meet demand for aircraft, rather than flying a smaller number of flights with a higher number of passengers per plane. As of May, only 319 Airbus A380s had been ordered, with 142 of them ordered by Emirates. Virgin Atlantic and Quantas have both booked aircraft, but the manufacturer has acknowledged that these planes may never be built if the market for the A380 doesn’t improve. While Boeing spent much less on their 747-8 extension than Airbus invested in the enormous A380, neither plane may be very profitable. That’s particularly true for Airbus, which is expected to eat the estimated $25 billion it cost to build the A380 in the first place.