Leslie Josephs | CNBC
The 1,574th — and last — 747 is scheduled to leave the assembly plant late Tuesday before it is flown by a Boeing test pilot, painted and handed over to cargo and charter carrier Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings early next year.
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“It’s a very surreal time, obviously,” said Kim Smith, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 747 and 767s programs out of the assembly plant here. “For the first time in well over 50 years we will not have a 747 in this facility.”
The lone 747, covered in a green protective coating, sits inside the company’s massive assembly plant in Everett — the largest building in the world by volume, according to Boeing. The building was constructed specifically for the jumbo jet’s start of production in 1967.
Inside, Boeing crews have spent the last few days swinging the landing gears, fine-tuning cargo handling systems and finishing the interiors before the final 63-feet-tall and 250-foot-long aircraft leaves the building. Tails with customer logos that have bought the 747 line part of one of the doors.
The end of 747 production doesn’t mean the planes will disappear entirely from the skies, since the new ones could fly for decades. However, they’ve become rare in commercial fleets. United and Delta said goodbye to theirs years before the Covid pandemic, while Qantas and British Airways landed their 747s for good in 2020 during a worldwide travel slump.
“It was a great plane. It served us brilliantly,” British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said on the sidelines of an event at John F. Kennedy International Airport with partner American Airlines last week. “There’s a lot of nostalgia and love for it but when we look to the future it’s about modern aircraft, more efficiency, more sustainable solutions as well.”
The hump-backed 747 is one of the most recognizable jetliners and helped make international travel more accessible in the years after its first commercial flight in January 1970. Its four powerful engines were efficient for their time. The planes could carry hundreds of passengers at a time for long-haul flights.
The enormous jets also made it easier to fly air cargo around the world, helping companies cater to more demanding consumer tastes for everything from electronics to cheese.
The plane’s end comes as Boeing is working to regain its footing after a series of crises, including the aftermath of two deadly crashes of its bestselling 737 Max narrow-body planes that killed a total of 346 people.
The pandemic travel slump has given way to a boom in orders for new planes, but production problems have delayed deliveries of Boeing’s wide-body 787 Dreamliners. The company doesn’t expect its 777X, the largest new jet, to be ready for customers until early 2025. It also still has to deliver two 747s to serve as Air Force One, but those have been beset by delays and cost overruns as well.
Boeing shares are down about 8% this year through Monday’s close, compared with a roughly 16% drop in the broader market. Despite a recent loss, Boeing’s stock has surged about 53% so far this quarter. United’s plan to buy dozens of Dreamliners, possibly by the end of the year, has helped lift shares.
Boeing’s last 747 aircraft, #1574, at its factory in Everett, Washington.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC
Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun last month said that “there will be a moment in time where we’ll pull the rabbit out of the hat and introduce a new airplane sometime in the middle of the next decade,” saying that technology needs to offer more fuel savings.
The end of 747 production was “inevitable but it would be a little more palatable if they were making something new,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director at consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory.
For all of its milestones airlines have long clamored for more fuel-efficient planes. Boeing’s own twin-aisle and twin-engine 777s and 787 Dreamliners have taken the spotlight along with competitors from main rival Airbus.
Airlines have largely shunned four-engine jets to make way for two-engine aircraft.
“The biggest enemy of Boeing quads was Boeing twins,” said Aboulafia.
Airbus, too, has ended production of its Airbus A380 after a 14-year run, handing over the last of the world’s largest passenger plane a year ago. Such jumbo jets are intended to funnel passengers through hub airports, but travelers often seek shorter routes with nonstop flights.
In 1990, there were 542 Boeing 747s that made up 28% of the world’s passenger wide-body fleet, according AeroDynamic Advisory, citing Centre for Aviation data. With 109 Boeing 747 planes, the jets accounted for just 2% of the world’s wide-body passenger fleet this year, according to CAPA.
The jet’s domination of the air cargo market has also waned, even as air freight emerged as a bright spot during the pandemic. The 747 comprises 21% of the world’s wide-body cargo fleet, down from 71% in 1990, according to CAPA. Airbus has begun marketing a freighter version of its wide-body competitor the A350 and Boeing is selling a freighter version of the 777X, as airlines prepare for stricter emissions standards.
Engineers, mechanics and others who worked on the 747 will move on to other plane programs as the manufacturer tries to ramp up output, Smith said.
“Those programs are very eager and kind of knocking down our door to get this level of top talent to come join their team,” she said.
— CNBC’s Gabriel Cortes contributed to this article.