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10:53 am
Tue December 10, 2013

As Boeing 777X Sales Take Off, Iconic 747 Line Descends

When the 747 jet first took off from Boeing Field in 1969, drivers on Interstate 5 were awestruck.

“People were stopped,” said Barry Latter, a docent at the Museum of Flight and former Boeing engineer. “They’d parked their cars on the side of the freeway, and they were looking down at the airplane, saying something this big can’t fly.”

The 747 was a regal jet then, the biggest ever of its kind, built to accommodate packed airports clamoring for bigger jets. Pan American World Airways had told Boeing, “You build it, and we’ll buy it.” And so Boeing built a jet to impress, with a double deck and in-flight lounge accessible up a spiral staircase.

The spiral staircase that led to the iconic lounge upstairs where smoking was allowed in the 747's early days (though, naturally, not anymore).
Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph

The plane was dubbed, appropriately, "Queen of the Skies." At its factory warehouse in Everett, Wash. – the largest factory in the world, built especially for the 747 – the aerospace giant couldn’t produce the planes fast enough.

The jet became accessible to the middle class by design. Ticket prices dropped as the number of available seats expanded. More people discovered they could afford to fly.

“This airplane opened up commercial aviation for a whole lot of people who for reasons of airline capacity or reasons of economy would not travel very far,” Latter said. “This airplane made the world a lot smaller and still continues to do that.”

But the 747’s heyday has waned. This year, Boeing received just five orders for the jet. At the Dubai Airshow last month, meantime, the aerospace giant received a record-breaking 259 orders for the 777X, which is poised to replace the 747 in popularity. The 777X may be smaller, but it's lighter and more fuel-efficient.

That’s because bigger is no longer better.

Jim Haas, marketing director for Boeing commercial airplanes, said too many seats can cost the airlines. Airline margins are so tight, they need to sell every seat every time.

“As the world economy has gone down, the demand for very large airplanes has gone down,” Haas said. “We don’t see it worth airlines taking the risk of filling those extra hundred seats because if you don’t fill them, you’re going to be hurting.”

Everybody kind of got on with it and said never mind the ways in which it can't be done - let's figure out a way it can be done and go from there.

The 777X isn’t airborne yet, but the 777 line has appealed so far because it’s large but also efficient, and passengers enjoy the experience, Haas said.

“The two most popular airplanes, of all the wide-body planes flying today, are the 747 and the 777,” he said.

Another problem is that the 747 is heavy and has four engines. Boeing’s latest version improved fuel efficiency, but it still isn’t the best in the business.

Haas said Boeing remains committed to the 747 because it has a place in the cargo market and there are niche passenger markets, like Mexico City’s high-altitude airport.

And Air Force One: The Secret Service wants four engines for the plane that flies the president.

The remaining 747 jets no longer have lounges, and of course, no smoking is allowed. But for the nostalgic, traces of the old glamor and jet set lifestyle are on display at the Museum of Flight. The museum is refurbishing the first 747 test jet “to show what it was like for the flight test analysts who flew on the airplane,” Latter said. Even the iconic lounge will be reconstructed.

Latter has reason to wax poetic about the legendary jet. He was among a group of Boeing workers from the 1960s and 1970s dubbed “the incredibles” by a Boeing executive. He moved to the area in 1966 and worked on the 747 program for 12 years.

Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s historian, said those employees worked free overtime out of a sense of pride.  

“They’d come in on the weekends and work, and when it was time for them to go home, they’d just stay and keep working,” Lombardi said. “And the managers after a while said, ‘You folks need to go home and get some rest,’ and walked them out to their cars to make sure that they would leave. And then after, they’d go back in the building – the folks would drive around the block and go back to work.” 

Latter said the workers embraced that name: “We thought we were incredible as well, so everybody kind of got on with it and said never mind the ways in which it can’t be done – let’s figure out a way it can be done and go from there.”

Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.

A prototype of the Boeing 777X. The jet, which hasn't yet been built, raked in 259 orders at the Dubai Air Show this year.
Credit Boeing handout.