As epoch-ending statements go, this one was stealthy and carefully modulated: “It is reasonably possible that we could decide to end production of the 747.”
And so it slipped out, in a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, first reported by Aviation Week, that Boeing foresees the moment when the single most consequential airplane it ever built will come to the end of its viable life—probably around 2020, which would give the aircraft 50 years in production.
Like millions of people across the globe, I long ago came to take the 747—the Jumbo Jet—waiting at an airport gate as a distinctive and welcome presence, an airplane that reassured you with its substance and solidity; never exactly sexy but with a personality that other airplanes never quite reached, something above being just an exquisite machine.
In truth, though, for me the attachment is stronger and more personal. Some 23 years ago I published a book about the 747, which turned out to be a story about much more than a machine. It was about a singular group of engineers who brought the machine to life in a way that permanently marked their own life experience, always under stress, often tested to the limits of their skills but never, never daunted.
I realized that I wasn’t just writing about a machine, but the biography of a machine and its creators, a process in which you get to know the subject so intimately that you can’t ever shake off the effect of the achievement. As a result of writing the book, every time I board a 747 it remains impossible not to think about its details, visible and invisible, without hearing the voices of those whose work it was, the scores of engineers I had interviewed, most of them at that point living out their retirement in and around Seattle.
And of all those stories there is one that shows how daringly improvised the creation of the 747 sometimes was—in a real sense it describes the genesis of the whole concept.
Milt Heinemann was not a salesman at Boeing but there was a single quite scary moment in his career when he sold the biggest idea ever to come out of the company.
It happened one morning in 1966. Heinemann had a meeting with the top managers of Pan Am in the airline’s eponymous building that rose above Grand Central station in New York.
Deliberately, he arrived a little early, and was shown into the boardroom on the 52nd floor. From his briefcase he pulled out a length of hemp rope, 35 feet long. It was knotted at two points, at 20 feet and 29 feet.
He played out the rope across the width of the boardroom, and it turned out to be just a tad wider than the 20 feet marker. Then he pulled out a chair from beside the boardroom table, stood on it, and with the 20 feet knot on the floor stretched up to the ceiling. The ceiling height was just beyond the 29 feet knot.
Nobody had witnessed this strange behavior. Had they done so they might well have decided that Heinemann was nuts. He wound up the rope and put it back in his briefcase, pulled out a wad of documents and sat down at the table.
A little later the managers filed in, led by Pan Am’s imperious creator and chairman, Juan Trippe. The business of the day was to hear out Heinemann on Boeing’s latest plans for a new airplane, the 747.
Trippe wanted an airliner that was at least twice the size of the first Boeing passenger jet, the 707. Until that moment he believed that the 747 would simply be a 707 with two decks instead of one and otherwise follow conventional dimensions in each cabin.
Heinemann had been sent from Seattle to tell Trippe that Boeing had a radical new concept for the 747. It would have only one deck for passengers—a very wide deck. Heinemann explained that, essentially, the cabin would virtually have the internal dimensions of the Pan Am boardroom: 19 feet wide and nine feet high. They were, he said, to all intents and purposes now sitting in that cabin.
There was a silence while Trippe’s obedient managers awaited his response and Heinemann wished he could disappear. Finally Trippe said only that it was an interesting proposal and he wanted to know more —a lot more. It wasn’t the airplane he thought he was buying.
In the history of companies handing off the delivery of potentially deal-breaking news to a relatively junior executive this one deserves a prime slot. Heinemann was a modestly ranked engineer at Boeing. His specialty was cabin interiors and in the Boeing hierarchy the engineers who designed the frame of a new airplane and its working parts—thousands of working parts—came first in responsibility and influence. To them, the cabin was décor.
When Boeing made a pitch for a new airplane to an airline, Heinemann was always the last to speak. He liked to say that he was responsible for the only part of the airplane that made a profit: the seats.
And yet what Heinemann had described to Trippe that day was momentous. For the first time an airplane cabin could break free from the confinement of a tube, the conventional form with a single-aisle and six-abreast seating.
There were many other innovations in the 747 but what became known as the twin-aisle wide-body cabin was the most far-reaching. However, even though Trippe accepted the concept and Pan Am was the first airline to fly the 747 he never thought it would endure. His plan was for the wide-body, this capacious but bulbous machine, to be replaced by a supersonic jet, the SST, flying two and half times as fast, with a slender fuselage shaped for speed.
The 747, Trippe believed, was just a useful stopgap and once the SST arrived it would revert to carrying cargo only—the reason why it had been designed with a cockpit in the hump above the main deck was so that cargo could be loaded through a hinged door at the nose.
That never happened. The U.S. government-sponsored SST program was abandoned. Its economics were awful and the environmental impact equally egregious—only one SST, the Anglo-French Concorde, gained an established place on airline routes and then only as an elitist convenience.
Ironically, Trippe didn’t seem to appreciate that the 747 would enable aviation to initiate the age of widely affordable air travel. In the first phase of the Jet Age, beginning in the late 1950s, the passengers frequently looked as sexy and glamorous as the machines, but flying remained well beyond the means of the middle class.
With the 747, Trippe had set Boeing the goal of achieving what would be a new price point for airline travel. The economics of an airplane are expressed in the seat/mile cost—given a nominal number of seats, the cost of flying one seat one mile. Trippe wanted that number to be 6.6 cents per mile, one-third of the 707’s cost.
By reaching that number, in one leap the 747 not only put flying within the reach of many more people, it did so on a global basis. In airports around the world the 747 became a mesmerizing and inimitable presence. Small countries where leaders had big egos and autocratic style bought 747s as prestige projects.
In that way the 747 went beyond being just an airplane to being a ubiquitous advertisement of America’s attainments. More substantially, it was an instrument of social advancement, introducing a new math that enabled coach class seats to be sold at prices that brought international travel to many millions more people.
The result, however, was often far from egalitarian.
Because the 747’s size allowed a variety of cabin comfort standards, airlines began to see that they could make an airplane a microcosm of an increasingly affluent but still stratified society. For one thing, what could be a more specifically delineated society than the three-class cabin?
Without altering the basic utility of the machine—everybody departs and arrives at the same time—the passengers are divided by carefully calculated levels of comfort.
At the front end there was first class, replicating what in the early post-war years of international flights had been common throughout the cabin, well-spaced wide seats and restaurant-style meal service. In the middle came business class with relatively few seats. And then in the rear, with 10 seats in each row and tight space between each row, there was coach—or cattle class, as it was frequently described by those who liked the price but not the discomfort.
This stratification of the wide-body cabin has now become such a finely tuned work of airline business plans that there are now regularly four classes, not three, with the arrival of “premium economy”—something of a contradiction in terms in both concept and execution, but fine for those who want to escape the press of bodies in the back of the airplane but who don’t want to pay a whole lot more to do so.
In this new world, the art of successfully filling seats of four different sizes on every flight has actually ended up dictating the size and shape of every new wide-body plane, whether built by Boeing or Airbus. And it is this calculation that, in the end, has been the nemesis of the 747.
As the economics of the wide-body cabin were refined it became apparent that a four-engined airplane like the 747 was less competitive than one with two engines—and so in the 1990s Boeing created the first “big twin,” the 777.
The latest and final iteration of the 747, the 747-8, launched in 2010, has new and more efficient wings and a new generation of engines that are more efficient, cleaner, and quieter. But orders for the 747-8 have slumped, with a backlog now of only 21 airplanes. The production rate has been cut to the lowest sustainable level: 0.5 per month.
Without admitting as much, it is Boeing itself that has rendered the 747-8 obsolescent by launching a new generation of the 777, the 777X, planned to arrive in 2020. It will be capable of flying as many passengers as the original 747, more than 400, at a lower cost than the 747-8. Already, airlines have ordered more than 300.
It may well be that the only other supersized jet, the Airbus A380, will be the last of the big jets. Launched with high expectations in 2000, only 319 A380s have been sold, and 142 were bought by one airline, Emirates. Other airlines have canceled orders and, like Boeing, Airbus is undermining the logic of its jumbo with a big twin, the A350, that on many long-haul routes is more efficient.
Perhaps this is another tough lesson that the future does not always turn out as imagined, a series of big technical advances bringing startling transformations. Commercial jets fly no faster today than the Boeing 707 that arrived in 1957. That was a quantum leap but it had its own terminating speed wall, 600 mph. Supersonic flight just doesn’t make economic sense for mass air travel.
It seems equally likely that mega-sized jets will turn out to be a dead end. A combination of market forces and tough new environmental regulations, stressing efficiency, quietness, and low emissions favors the twins.
In no way does that diminish the glory of the 747. By the end of its run Boeing will have produced 1,555 747s, way beyond what its creators imagined possible. But it’s not just about numbers. I’ve been flying on 747s since the year of its debut, 1970. As I take my seat and look around me it still seems so big that it’s amazing it can leave the ground. It is a magic machine that casts its own spell and that won’t be quickly snuffed out.
Jumbo: The Making of the Boeing 747, by Clive Irving is available on Kindle from Amazon and also in paperback.