6 Things We’ll Miss When the 747 Retires

May 28, 2017

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It’s as certain as a Champagne welcome in first class. Watch a Boeing 747 pull up to a terminal window, and cameras and smiles emerge, fingers point and children young and old start gawking. Maybe it’s that majestic hump or the imposing profile of the plane’s two-story nose. Approaching age 50, the 747 still manages to be a source of wonder for even the most well-traveled aviation geeks, summoning a pause and a glance on every arrival.

Time on this scene is running out at many US airports. By the end of this year, the 747’s remaining North American passenger carriers will cease service on the jumbo starting with United, then Delta. The classic aircraft is set to be replaced by tidier, more compact twin-engine jets like the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB. While international carriers including KLM, Lufthansa and Air China will continue to offer 747 service to the US for the time being, the Queen of the Skies’ glorious monarchy is slowly coming to an end as more international carriers retire their 747 fleets and orders for the newest passenger model dwindle. The days of glorious domestic hops on jumbo jets — like a recent Delta hop from Seattle (SEA) to Minneapolis (MSP) or United’s post-weather clean-up run from San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX) — will be confined to memory. Here’s a look at the six things we’ll miss most about this aircraft once it retires.

1. Forward-Facing Windows

United Global First seat 1a on the 747 in the nose of the plane

Enjoying a view unavailable on any other aircraft, passengers seated in the first few rows of a 747 can glance nearly straight down the runway as the jet lifts off the ground. Due to the design, as the airplane’s giant fuselage meets its angular nose, the cabin walls curve together. Windows in this most forward section are no longer parallel to the aisle, but face forward at an angle and are unobstructed by the cockpit elevated above. Even Airbus’ jumbo rival, the A380, doesn’t offer such a view as this since the cockpit on the French-made double-decker is positioned directly between the upper and lower deck.

The 747’s unique nose is owed to a logistical problem that’s long since passed. Designers were concerned about the speed at which freight companies could load and unload such a large aircraft, so to accommodate the blossoming air cargo business, Boeing designers moved the cockpit into a specially designed hump, which allowed for the installation of a hinged-nose cargo door. Now, airport vehicles are capable of loading cargo pallets into the side of any airplane, essentially rendering Boeing’s hump-nosed design obsolete.

2. This View From the Wing 

When Delta retires its final 747, it’ll mark the end of four-engine aircraft in US passenger service (three-engine aircraft have been out of fleets for years). Consider this figure: a single GE9X high-bypass turbofan engine to be used on the forthcoming 777X is expected to produce at least 115,000 pounds of thrust, equivalent to three of the 747s original Pratt and Whitney engines. With such powerful, highly reliable engines now commonplace, four-engine aircraft are becoming more of a novelty.

“Four engine airplanes are on their way out,” said Bob van der Linden, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “You look at the new 747, the Dash-8, and it’s as advanced as any aircraft out there. It has a new wing on it, but it has four engines. Airlines prefer twin-engine airplanes above all others now, even on long flights.”

It sure is nice to look down and see twin-engine nacelles poking out, though, their massive fans buzzing a distant whisper to passengers seated high above.

3. Cathedral Ceilings

Two flight attendants served the rear cabin.

With no second deck along the length of the fuselage, the Boeing 747 had a cabin ceiling nearly three feet higher than any other aircraft used in commercial service at the time it was introduced. While the super-jumbo A380 has similar dimensions in its lower cabin, no aircraft remaining in service on US carriers has a cabin cubic footage even close to the gargantuan Queen of the Skies.

Anyone who flies frequently enough to compare airplanes can attest to the psychological effect of having more space aboard a 747. The difference between an eight-foot ceiling and a 10-foot ceiling has been noted in studies, which have repeatedly found that people tend to make more abstract associations between objects in the latter space — in other words, people just seem to think more freely under those spacious ceilings. After several hours onboard, I find the size queen’s mind-opening effect palpable and the jumbo jet feels like more of a space station than transport vessel.

4. Feather-Duster Landings

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John Cotter has flown commercial aircraft in the United States for two decades, and is rated to fly the 777, 787 and 747. He always thought the 777 was the nicest-landing plane on the market, that is until late last year when he was retrained to fly one of the oldest aircraft in his company’s fleet, the 747-400. Clearly, the old bird impressed.

“The 747 makes you look good as a pilot,” said Cotter. “Invariably, after a flight on the 747, someone comes up and says, ‘Wow that was a great landing.’ It’s the airplane, every time.” And it’s not that landings on Boeing’s newer, twin-engine jets aren’t smooth, they just don’t compare to the 747. “The landing gear on the (Dreamliner) feels stiff by comparison,” Cotter said.

5. Interruption-Free Flights

The first class cabin on the 747's top deck.

Save for The Residence on an Etihad A380, there’s no commercial aircraft cabin in the sky more private than that of the 747. The Queen of the Skies has not one, but two exceptionally private cabin areas and none more so than the forward most part of the nose, where the President of the United States sleeps on Air Force One.

There is no other aircraft flying that features a cabin with only one entry point — if you’re in seat 1A on a 747, you can be guaranteed that absolutely no one else will be passing you by during the flight. Similarly, with a single rear staircase, the 747’s upper deck provides passengers a small, single-aisle respite from disturbances that can be irksome on long flights.

6. The Nostalgia Factor

Commissioned at the behest of Pan American World Airways founder Juan Trippe, the 747 took flight in 1969 as the largest commercial airliner ever to leave the ground and was more than twice the size of the next-largest aircraft available at the time, the 707. The plane was comprised of 4.5 million parts and 170 miles of electrical wiring and ran on an entirely new type of jet engine. Pratt and Whitney wrote off 60 of them before the airplane carried a single paying customer. The 747 was faster, more fuel efficient and more comfortable than any aircraft before it.

“You went from being in a tube to an airplane with almost ocean-liner comfort,” Van der Linden said.

New jetliners haven’t gotten much larger since then, but they have left the 747 behind in other metrics, namely fuel efficiency. Airlines are bound to enjoy fuel savings, but there are certain features of a 747 that passengers simply can’t enjoy on any other plane in the world. For five decades aviation geeks have gloated over it. Pilots have lauded the plane’s steady-as-a-rock nature and effortless landings. There’s just something truly empowering about how this giant plane diffuses turbulence into gentle, calming bumps.

What are your favorite things about the Boeing 747? What will you miss most about it? Sound off, below.

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