The iconic ‘queen of the skies’ has reigned supreme for over 50 years. Since its introduction with Pan Am in 1970, the Boeing 747 has found a home with airlines all over the world, and has won the heart of many an avgeek in the process. But, with just 17 aircraft in the production queue and no new orders in 2019, could the production of this beautiful aircraft be soon coming to an end?
The 747 slowdown
Once upon a time, the Boeing 747 was the staple of the long haul flight. However, it’s been some years since it was seen in the livery of a US airline. Delta retired the last passenger Boeing 747 in December 2017, but prior to that, it had flown for every single major American carrier.
In other parts of the world, however, it is still a fairly common sight. The biggest operator currently is Atlas Air, which owns a total of 36 of the type. 27 are operated as freighters, while just five are configured for passengers.
These are not new aircraft either. British Airways’ 747s average an age of 22.8 years, while Lufthansa’s overall average is dragged down to 12.3 years thanks to its 747-8s averaging just 6.3 years of age. Its 747-400s, however, have clocked up an average of 21.1 years in service. Both airlines have mooted plans to retire the rest of their fleets by the mid-2020s.
2019 was the first year that Boeing received zero orders for the 747. It has had some near misses in previous years, securing just one order for the type in 2010 and just two in 2014. Despite this, seven aircraft from the order backlog were delivered last year. Just 17 remain on the books to be delivered.
Will Boeing end production?
Despite the marked slowdown in 747 orders, Boeing won’t be stopping production any time soon. Passenger variants may not be a popular choice, but the aircraft has stimulated ongoing demand in another area of aviation – cargo.
The order book was buoyed by a commitment in 2018 from UPS for 14 additional 747 freighters, and it remains a popular choice of aircraft for shifting goods around the world. A UPS spokesperson told Reuters that the 747 is an “efficiency machine” for the specialist cargo airline.
Other cargo operators are also big fans of the 747. Cargolux has 11 of the 400F and 15 747-8Fs in its fleet, while Polar Air Cargo has seven and six for a total fleet of 13. Cathay Pacific flies 25 Boeing 747s, all as cargo carriers, while UPS itself has a fleet of 28.
The uptick in online shopping is only set to go one way. Despite the cargo industry being hit hard by the US-China trade war, there’s still plenty of demand for goods to be moved around the world. As such, the production of the 747, at least as a freighter, is guaranteed for many years to come.
Even just the 17 on the order books are likely to take around three years to build and deliver, and perhaps 2020 will see more orders for the freighter version from cargo airlines looking at fleet renewal.
Of course, there is one airline that’s shown an interest in the Boeing 747 passenger variant. Avatar Airlines wants to become a low-cost carrier with 30 747-8s in its fleet. If that comes to pass, it could secure the 747s future for many years to come. But, as the airline is not yet funded, we take that with a pinch of salt!
For now, at least, the 747 can hold its head high as it has long outlived its Airbus rival.