What Is The Future For The Boeing 747?

When it comes to icons of commercial aviation, the Boeing 747 is arguably top dog. From its first flight way back in 1969, the Boeing 747 is still in production half a century later. It’s gone through a number of renditions since the original 747-100, but what does the future hold for this legend of the skies?

A Trans World Boeing 747-100
The Boeing 747-100 laid the groundwork for later versions of the 747. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

With its double-deck configuration and wide-body fuselage, the Boeing 747 dwarfed all commercial passenger jets that came before it. As the design was refined and extended throughout the years, the jumbo jet’s seating capacity continued to grow. In fact, even nowadays, the Boeing 747 is still only outdone by the gargantuan Airbus A380 in terms of size and seating capacity.

The latest version of the Boeing 747, the 747-8, is by most metrics a modern aircraft. It was certified just eight years ago in 2011, and Boeing has received more than 150 orders for the type.

But orders of the Boeing 747-8 are nothing compared to many of the types that came before. Newer aircraft have eaten away at the Boeing 747’s market share with their greater fuel economy and more efficient cabin layouts.

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-8
The Boeing 747-8 is the latest and final version of the Boeing 747. Photo: Kiefer via Flickr

According to Flight Global, Boeing is producing 747-8 and -8fs at a rate of six per year. At this rate, the current backlog of outstanding Boeing 747 orders will be complete by 2022.

At this point, there is every chance the Boeing 747 will finally end production within a few years. Although demand for the 747 as a passenger aircraft is all but dead, one area the Boeing 747 is still a popular choice is as a cargo solution.

The Boeing 747 as a freighter

While the Boeing 747 is certainly an icon of commercial passenger aviation, it is arguably even more of an icon in the world of freight transport. As of January 2019, out of the 512 Boeing 747s still in operation, 297 of them were used in a freighter capacity.

The Boeing 747’s primacy as a freighter is mostly down to its enormous hull size. According to Cargolux, their Boeing 747-8F has a maximum revenue payload of 134 metric tons.

For many years this made the Boeing 747 the undisputed commercial freighting platform. But, even after the arrival of the larger Airbus A380, the Boeing 747 kept its place as the most popular freighting aircraft.

An Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter
The Boeing 747 is the most popular commercial freight aircraft in history. Photo: Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia

Although Airbus did toy with the idea of creating a freighter version of its monstrous A380, in the end, it didn’t make financial sense. Despite having a larger freight capacity and a longer range, the Airbus A380F would have been less efficient and more expensive to run than the rival Boeing 747F.

Keeping the Boeing 747 in operation after production has ended

Even if the production of the Boeing 747-8 and -8F does end within the next five years, it won’t be the end of the 747 just yet. There are a number of carriers which still have sizeable passenger Boeing 747 fleets in operation.

The largest commercial operator is British Airways, with a total of 33 Boeing 747s in operation, closely followed by Lufthansa with 32. Although British Airways has laid out its retirement plans for the jumbo jet, the worldwide fleet of freighter Boeing 747s will likely be around for a lot longer.