On Tuesday, the last Boeing 747 to carry passengers for a U.S. airline will fly from Detroit, Michigan to Seoul, South Korea, then return on Wednesday, bringing an end to 47 years of U.S. passenger service. A couple more sports charter flights and a farewell circuit to Delta’s biggest hubs await the airplane, which will finally fly to the Arizona desert on January 3* to retire, probably forever.
The 747-400 is reaching the end of its natural service life, and no U.S. airline has bought its intended replacement, the 747-8i. The 747 was once a common sight at U.S. airports, but as the world changed and consolidation swept the industry, the four-engine “Queen of the Skies” has been growing older, and scarcer. Delta flies the last of them; United Airlines, for years the only other U.S.-based operator flying the jet, parked its last 747-400 in November. A handful of U.S.-based 747s soldier on as charters and cargo airplanes, but many of us will likely never see a U.S.-flagged 747 again. Slightly newer -400s still fly abroad, and a handful will fly with Qantas and British Airways through around 2022, but there is no question of their fates: the age of the 747 is ending.
When the first 747 rolled out in 1968, it was unlike any airplane the world had ever seen. The “jumbo jet” was then the world’s largest airliner by a wide margin, and its cutting-edge high-bypass turbofans and sheer economies of scale promised a new era of air travel, when international flights would finally become inexpensive enough for the masses.
The age of dependable jet travel was still relatively new, and flying was all but reserved for the upper classes. The 747—enormous, fast, glamorous (early 747s had piano bars or lounges), graceful in the air and on the ground—was a sign that things really were changing for the better, that the giddy post-WWII techno-optimism could still be realized. For a generation of flyers, the iconic jumbo jet became the very incarnation of the romance of flight, and a potent symbol of America’s technological and economic dominance.
The jumbo jet quickly became the new standard: Airports planned around them, passengers loved them, other companies schemed (unsuccessfully) to build their own. The 1973 oil crisis and later, airline deregulation, largely brought an end to glamor and luxury—no more piano bars—but the 747 still evoked the old romance in a way no other modern airliner has since. Boeing refined its flagship continuously, resulting in both wildly popular follow-ons (747-200 and -400) and rare oddballs (747SP, air-to-air tankers, Dreamlifters, etc). Meanwhile, for 30 years, the 747 remained the largest airliner available.
In the 1990s, European arch-rival Airbus decided that the Boeing jumbo jet’s reign was over. The result was the A380, which became (and still is) the largest airliner around, so big that airports again needed to extend runways, strengthen taxiways, and build new double-decker gates to handle them. Unwilling to concede the market, Boeing updated the 747 with the latest in engines, electronics, and passenger comfort, and lengthened it further to fit more people. The 747-8i (for passengers) and 8F (for cargo) were designed to keep the 747 enshrined as Queen of the Skies.
But both Boeing and Airbus misread the market, and neither the new 747s nor A380s have sold well. Smaller twin-engine airplanes—Boeing 777s and Airbus A350s—can now carry passengers for much lower costs (two engines are cheaper than four), and are easier to reliably fill with customers. Among passengers, the romance of flight has largely been replaced by irritation, and a long flight is now something to endure rather than anticipate.
Of course, Air & Space has covered the 747 extensively over the years. Some of our favorite pieces, like Christine Negroni’s The World’s Airliner and Mark Vanhoenacker’s Love Letter to the 747 explore why the jumbo jet was so popular with the airlines and pilots that flew it. We’ve written about How the 747 Got its Hump and the career of Joe Sutter, the Father of the 747. The airplane has done all kinds of jobs, including performing at airshows, or carrying a telescope, or ferrying the U.S. President. Though you might have trouble booking a ticket on a 747 from now on, you’ll still be able to read about it here.
*Correction (January 3, 2018): This post has been updated to reflect that the last Delta 747 landed in Arizona on January 3, 2018, not on December 31, 2017 as previously reported.