The 747

It’s one of those things that I never thought about much but — when I did — it was one of those things that I assumed would be around for ever. The Boeing 747. Of course, nothing lasts forever (except perhaps spectacularly dark guilt) but it was easy to imagine one of these planes flying through the sky somewhere in the world on any given day.

Transport is, in fact, an industry particularly prone to change and innovation. You don’t see too many chariots on the streets these days. Or sedan chairs. Or horses. Sadly, no longer any supersonic services across the Atlantic, either. Nothing stays static. Nowadays, we are all in the washing-machine swirl of changing our cars from petrol to electricity. The time when we all fly through the air on jetpacks hasn’t arrived yet but perhaps they’ll soon be so normal as not to be noticed.

It’s had a good run, the 747, as it first went into production in 1967.

The last aircraft, a 747-8F for Atlas Air, rolled off the production line on 6 December 2022 and was delivered on 31 January 2023.

Over fifty years is a respectable age for any aircraft. Manufacturers are moving to more profitable and fuel efficient wide-body planes, with one major improvement: only two engines to maintain instead of four.

I am not the type of person who hangs around airports noting the variations and configurations of airlines and their technical differences — that’s what Wikipedia is for — but even I know two things about the Queen of the Skies.

One: the 747 had an upper deck. Stairs on an airplane! Get your head around that! I’ve flown in that upper deck several times with British Airways (all those craft were retired when the coronavirus came) and it always did feel special somehow: smaller but quieter and paradoxically more spacious.

Two: the 747 opened up the world. Despite an initial slowing of sales and reduced passenger numbers following the 1973 oil crisis, the longer range of the 747 meant that more people could fly further, faster. Suddenly, you could fly from the west coast of the USA all the way to Asia without having to stop for refuelling in Anchorage or Honolulu. That meant the cost was lower. Suddenly, more of us were flying more places than ever. Hurrah for the democratisation of air travel!

Not such good news for the planet.

Now, we’re all encouraged to fly as little as possible because of words that didn’t exist when the 747 was born: net zero.

As I said — by definition — nothing in transport ever stays still.

Coming in to land in London…

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