The Lame Duck Jumbo Jet

It was the mother of all planes, the original jumbo jet, queen of the skies. Once elected to rule the air travel world in 1969, masses looked up in awe, aspiring for the privilege to ride her. Behold the Boeing 747 in all her glory, faithful servant of the people for nearly four decades.

Photo from Boeing.com

She didn’t ask for this fate, but as airlines move away from jumbo jets in favor of smaller, more efficient aircraft, it’s the one she’s stuck with: the Boeing 747 is now officially the lame duck jumbo jet. In a tragic coup d’etat, next-generation aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have forced the 747 into obsolescence and taken the throne.

No, it will not a be a painless death for the former queen, unfortunately; it will be slow and humiliating for the gentle giant. Many airlines are still operating the aircraft, and with the recent release of the 747–8 they will continue to do so for at least the next two decades. It is quite clear that she is an unwanted airplane, though — a nuisance to airlines and airports on all six inhabited continents.

Hubs and Spokes are Not Just for Your Bike

Transportation service strategies for centuries focused on operating the most direct routes between destinations as possible. In 1955 Delta pioneered the hub-and-spoke strategy which increased efficiency by routing all passengers through the main hub and then onward to their final destinations — the spokes. The aviation industry was revolutionized. Airlines could now eliminate less popular routes between smaller cities and still serve the passengers by offering a connection at the hub. Fewer airplanes and crew members are required and money is saved.

For more than half a century hub-and-spoke was the standard for air transport companies around the world. Delta established their main hubs in Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, and many airlines followed suit in other highly populated cities.

Sample hub-and-spoke system

The way it works is simple — take a look at the graphic above. Hubs are established in Denver and Los Angeles, with many smaller cities making up the spokes. The airline will operate multiple flights per day between Denver and Los Angeles, and then connecting flights from each hub to their respective spokes. Therefore it makes sense to have airplanes with high capacity on the most popular route between LA and Denver, hence the demand for the 747!

So Then Why is the 747 Being Ousted?

Hub-and-spoke thrived on the fact that nonstop flights between less-popular cities were inefficient and unprofitable, and it solved that problem by directing every flight through a major hub so that at least one city on each route was highly populated. With the introduction of ultra fuel-efficient jets such as the 787 Dreamliner and A350, however, flights could now be profitably operated between these less popular cities.

Xiamen Air 787, photo from Boeing.com

For example, Xiamen Air now offers a nonstop flight between New York City and Fuzhou, a city-pair that was previously only possible with a connection at a major hub like Shanghai or Beijing. Thanks to the 787 this new route is possible.

Passengers Want Nonstop!

Nonstop flights are considerably more valuable to passengers than connecting flights, as evidenced by the significant price difference. Unless you enjoy a pleasant layover then there’s a good chance you are willing to pay more for a nonstop option. If an airline can offer a flight between two “spoke” destinations by utilizing a next-generation aircraft then they can theoretically cover the cost of empty seats by charging more for a ticket.

Passengers also tend to enjoy more options for flight departure time, which is why British Airways offers flights from New York City to London every half hour in the evening. Consolidating all passengers onto one 747 flight may be convenient for the airline but it probably won’t be for the passengers. Hence the demand for Boeing’s new 737 MAX, a more efficient version of the 737 frequently used on regional routes.

It’s Not Too Late to Take the 747 for a Spin

Although airlines are rapidly retiring the 747 it is still not too late to give it a try. From North America, hop aboard British Airways’ 747 to London Heathrow, Qantas’ to Sydney (via Los Angeles), El Al’s to Tel Aviv, and many others.

In Europe make sure to catch a flight on Lufthansa’s 747 to New York or Air China’s to Beijing.

In Asia don’t miss Korean Air’s brand new 747–8 to Rome.

Soon the 747 will be limited to cargo flights where it will complete its legacy as a pack mule. Until then, be sure not to miss the opportunity.

Photo by Alan Wilson | CC BY-SA 2.0

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