More than half a century after its first commercial flight, the Boeing 747 remains among the most iconic airliners of all time. The uniqueness of its design and the majesty of its size continue to fascinate avgeeks worldwide. The socio-economic impact of the aircraft cannot be understated either. Indeed, its lower costs per passenger democratized air travel, rendering it more accessible to the masses. Boeing produced over 1,500 of these iconic quadjets.
The Airbus A380 is an example of an airliner with just one variant. However, the 747, with which Airbus designed it to compete, has seen several iterations over the years. But which proved the most popular with the airlines that ordered and operated the ‘Queen of the Skies?’
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The -400 variant is the most produced example of Boeing’s jumbo jet. In total, the 694 -400s produced account for almost half of the entire 747 contingent. These aircraft were delivered over 20 years, spanning from 1989 to 2009. Northwest Airlines was the type’s launch customer in February 1989, less than a year after its first flight in 1988.
The 747-400’s immense popularity with airlines is the result of a combination of factors. For example, it featured the stretched upper deck that had first become standard on the previous 747-300. This offered operators a useful increase in capacity. However, the -300 did not prove as popular as Boeing had hoped, as it still required a three-person flight crew, which resulted in added expense for airlines.
As such, with the -400, Boeing introduced a two-person glass cockpit to address this issue. Utilizing new technology, the company was also able to improve the range of this new design over the older -300. All in all, the -400 proved a hit with airlines, and stopped a threatening slump in 747 sales.
Boeing also produced a limited number of various specialized variants of the -400. For example, Australian flag carrier Qantas operated six 747-400ER (‘Extended Range’) aircraft. Airlines such as Dutch flag carrier KLM operated the 747-400M. This ‘combi’ aircraft featured an additional cargo section, rather than a passenger cabin, at the rear of the lower deck. For high-demand short-haul routes, carriers such as ANA also had the high-density 747-400D at their disposal.
Also popular as a freighter
The -400 was also popular as a cargo aircraft, with over 150 examples (among the total of 694 -400s) being produced specifically for airfreight. In addition to the 126 standard 747-400F aircraft, Boeing also delivered 40 longer-range -400ERFs.
Boeing also elected to utilize four passenger 747-400s when looking for aircraft to convert to its outsized ‘Dreamlifter‘ freighter. This bulging design is credited with reducing shipping times for parts for its 787 ‘Dreamliner.’ The journey from Japan had taken a month by sea, but dropped to just nine hours with the Dreamlifter’s introduction.
The next-most-popular variant of the Boeing 747 is the -200, with just under 400 examples produced. This aircraft offered a more favorable range compared to the original -100 model. It also featured more powerful engines and an increased maximum takeoff weight (MTOW).
Airline deregulation in the late 1970s spelled an end for using the upper deck as a lounge for most operators. As such, the -200’s upper deck came with 10 windows on each side as standard, whereas the -100s had initially only had three.
The vast majority (225 of 393) of 747-200s were the passenger-configured -200B model. However, like the -400, Boeing produced a ‘combi’ variant known as the -200M. This accounted for 78 of the total number of 747-200s that rolled off the American manufacturer’s production line.
Also produced were almost as many (73) cargo-configured 747-200F aircraft, along with 13 -200Cs. In this instance, the C designated that the aircraft was convertible between freight and passenger configurations as per the operator’s demands. It did so by featuring removable seats and a nose cargo door, as well as an optional side cargo door on the main deck.
The remaining four 747-200s were military variants. Production ended in 1991, although Iran Air did not retire its last remaining passenger example, a 36-year-old -200B, until May 2016. This was some 44 years after the type had first entered service with German flag carrier Lufthansa in 1972.
The 747-100 was the original variant of Boeing’s jumbo jet, and it sold reasonably well. However, the fact that the -200 entered service just two years after the -100 did (with Pan Am in 1970) perhaps limited the scope for the -100 to garner more sales. Nonetheless, Boeing still managed to produce 205 examples across the variant’s three sub-classes.
The majority of these were the standard -100 version, of which Boeing produced 168 examples. Boeing also developed 29 -100SR (‘Short Range’) aircraft designed for high-capacity Japanese domestic routes.
The remaining nine examples were the -100B variant. Boeing developed this using technology from the -100SR. Its increased fuel capacity allowed its range to reach 9,300 km (5,000 NM). Iran Air was the last operator of both the -100 and the -100B. It retired its last example, EP-IAM, in 2014.
Less popular variants
Unfortunately, not all variants of the 747 have enjoyed the commercial success experienced by those listed thus far. While deliveries for the 747-8 are around the 150 mark, most of these are for the freight version. With the drop in passenger demand caused by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and other more general trends towards point-to-point rather than hub-to-hub air travel, it seems that the passenger market for the 747 is on its last legs.
Two variants also never made it to three-figure sales numbers. The more popular of these was the aforementioned 747-300, with 81 deliveries. While this had its advantages over previous models, it was quickly superseded by the much-improved -400, which became the most popular variant.
Finally, there was also the shortened 747SP (‘Special Performance’), with 45 deliveries. Despite its lack of commercial success, this curiously-proportioned quadjet remains popular among avgeeks worldwide today.
Which variants of the Boeing 747 have you flown on? Do you have a particular favorite? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!