Delta Boeing 747

Photo courtesy Delta Airlines

The End of Glamour in the Skies?

| published Thursday, January 2, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins 
Thursday Review Associate Editor

They shot down the 747. No, nobody died, and there was no horrific crash involved, but the iconic Queen of the Skies is being quietly ushered offstage, according to the Associated Press.

The double-decker jumbo jet, which revolutionized air travel and shrunk the globe for several generations, just oozed glamour and sophistication.

"We had four engines when jet engine technology wasn't advanced," Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said recently. "Now jet engines are amazing, amazing machines, and you only need two of them."

The Seattle-based Boeing recently cut production targets twice in six months, and they'll be producing 18 during the next two years. It didn't sell any 747s in 2013, and some new planes are sent straight from the assembly line into storage. The company hopes to sell those crafts to Asian countries and other potential overseas markets.

Today's modern airlines are not interested in large, four-engine planes, preferring newer two-engine jets that burn less fuel and fly the same distance. If you're running a big business, you have to watch every penny that goes out the door, and technological efficiency—like labor and job performance—is a logical place to start.

If you look back in the history books, the forerunner of Delta originated in 1924 in Macon, Georgia. It eventually expanded into a crop-dusting outfit headquartered out of Monroe, Louisiana, aiming to eradicate the boll weevil through spraying from the air.

You can see how well that endeavor succeeded by visiting the boll weevil statue in Enterprise, Alabama. Cotton crops were wiped out by the millions, and parts of the South had to find alternate products to grow, making a wide swath of southern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia into the peanut capital of the world (several cities lay claim to the title, among them: Smithfield, VA; Blakely, GA; Sylvester, GA; and Dothan, AL, which hosts the annual National Peanut Festival each fall). Delta’s name originates with its earliest footprint in the skies above the Mississippi River delta.

Delta struggled with air mail and passenger service through the 1930s, competing with Juan Tripp’s Pan Am and Howard Hughes’ TWA, but Delta continued its expansion for several decades. In 1941 the company headquartered its operations in Atlanta, then a thriving and busy East Coast airport, and now the busiest airport in the world.

Soon Delta became a worldwide force in the air through well-planned mergers and shrewd acquisitions, but it struggled (like most airlines) with labor and equipment costs. Its Atlanta footprint grew to over 80 acres, all adjacent to (or directly connected to) the massive Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, where it developed equipment repairs facilities and engine maintenance centers.

Delta also opened hub operations in other cities, including New York, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and, after Delta’s merger with Northwest in 2008, a massive center in Minneapolis which employs thousands. Delta, which purchased a large share of Pan Am’s operations when Pan Am went into bankruptcy in 1991, managed to outlive almost all of its early competitors, becoming the oldest continuously-operating airline in North America and the largest in the world in terms of fleet size, with one of its primary workhorses being the 747 (along with the smaller 727 and 737s).

But, Delta also had to contend with bankruptcy.

The primary problem with a 747 is that, depending on how it is configured, it seats between 380 and 560 passengers, which is wonderful if you sell all the tickets. But when ticket sales weaken, even a little, the business model suffers. You're talking 63,000 gallons of jet fuel, which costs around $200,000, with that cost often being spread across the wallets of the remaining ticket holders or carried on the back of the airline at the end of the day. Empty seats cost somebody a lot of money.

If you're flying several jumbo jet flights between Atlanta and Paris daily, then there will be empty seats. Fuel costs can vary as well, and when coupled with the empty seats, the costs can fluctuate significantly. It makes for an unpredictable mix. But since business travelers usually demand several flight options, airlines have coped by choosing to fly smaller planes several times each day. So, in the complex marketplace of modern air travel, the 747 was doomed.

Oh, but the 747 was an incredible joy to behold back in the day. It was six stories tall and longer than the distance the Wright Brothers travelled on their first flight, with a range of 6,000 miles.

"Everyone on the flight was dressed up," said Thomas Lee, a 17-year-old passenger on Pan Am's inaugural flight from New York to London in 1970. "After all, it was still back in the day when the romance of flight was alive and thriving."

The 747's seated twice as many passengers as a 707, making flights economical and allowing middle-class families to vacation in Europe. Then there was its role as Air Force One, carrying the president of the United States and his entourage worldwide, piggybacking the space shuttle across the country.

Boeing started building 747s in the late 1960s, with production peaking at 122 in 1990. It sold 1,418 planes before changing the design in 2011. Technology and cost hurt the 747, with a list price of $350 million versus $320 million for Boeing's largest 777.

With the advent of better power and reliability, improved engine efficiency and newer technologies—such as the introduction in 1985 of ETOPS (Extended Range Twin Operations), which allowed far greater ranges for twin engine planes—Federal regulations were modified and soon the 747 no longer had the long-distance routes, such as ocean flyovers, to themselves.*

Within a few years, the twin-engine Airbus A330 and Boeing's 777 began dominating long-haul routes.

In the recent past, the ultra-fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner has seen 979 orders, versus 31 for the 747-8.

The best customer of all continues to reside in the Oval Office, and politicians needn't worry about cost overruns because taxpayers pay for everything. However, Air Force One, which is the world's most visible airplane, will have been in the air for three decades in 2017. The fleet consists of two modified Boeing 747-200s, and the Air Force is seeking a four-engine replacement. Boeing and Airbus are the only Western jet-makers currently able to produce the plane.

Other plane manufacturers have made inquiries, but win or lose, Boeing is doing just fine. It has a backlog of 4,787 planes, with most of those orders for the best-selling 737. The company is speeding up production of the 737, 777 and 787, because the bulk of payments are realized upon delivery.

A new version of the 777 is expected out soon, and it will seat approximately 400 passengers. But take heart if you're a 747 fan, because most planes will continue to fly for at least three more decades.

*ETOPS allows for 90 minutes to arrive at an airport after the loss of an engine; also, engines have become more reliable and fuel efficient, and these improvements have enabled over-water trips of up to 11 hours on 777s. Thanks to Leo G. Breckenridge for additonal assistance and research on this article.