A 747 and other Boeing 7-Series jets in Seattle, Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS
A 747 and other Boeing 7-Series jets in Seattle, Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS

New York — The Boeing 747, the original jumbo jet favoured by American presidents and key to affordable mass market air travel in the US, will pass into aviation history this week.

Nearly 50 years after its debut, it will take its final commercial flight with a US carrier on Tuesday on Delta Air Line’s Seoul-to-Detroit route.

It "made flying available for everyone", said Boeing historian Michael Lombardi. "The 747 gave wings to the world."

Aerospace consultant Michel Merluzeau said the plane changed travel.

"All of a sudden, you could go from Singapore to London in less than 24 hours. It made everything more accessible."

Delta’s sendoff for the storied aircraft includes special flights on Wednesday for employees and top customers. Ticket prices for these "farewell tour" flights have soared owing to demand.

The 747 will still be in the skies for Lufthansa, British Airways and Korean Air Lines.

Boeing will still build the jet as a freight carrier and for a few clients including the US president, who has used a specially outfitted 747 as Air Force One since 1990. But the aerospace company has been shifting to more fuel-efficient models for commercial travel.

"The 747 was a major milestone in the history of flight," said Bob van der Linden, curator of the aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

"It’s big, very comfortable, beautiful, it has a staircase in it," Van der Linden said. "It’s a symbol of economic power."

Nicknamed the original "jumbo jet" because of the huge hump, the plane is able to carry upwards of 600 passengers.

Its origins date to the early 1960s, when Boeing’s then CEO Bill Allen was approached by Juan Trippe, head of now-defunct Pan Am Airlines, to build a bigger plane to alleviate the problem of airport crowding.

Boeing originally considered a double-decker aircraft, but the companies concluded that it would be difficult to evacuate passengers in case of an emergency, opting instead for a twin-aisle "wide body" design.

The next challenge, Lombardi said, was to commit enough resources to the programme at a time when Boeing was already building other aircraft, such as the 707 and the new 727, while also working on the Apollo space programme.

Lacking construction capacity to manufacture the new behemoth, Boeing built an assembly plant in the northwestern state of Washington.

"There is a calculated risk launching a new commercial plane," Lombardi said. "The customer was interested and the leader at Boeing saw that there was a future for this plane."

Since its debut in February 1969, more than 1,500 of the 747s have been delivered and 500 are still in service, says Flightglobal Ascend, which provides advisory and evaluation services to the industry.

As it began to phase out the 747, Boeing has downsized its aircraft. The 777, introduced in 1995, is smaller — seating up to 550 — and requires less fuel because of its two engines.

"Frankly, we really don’t see much demand for really big airplanes," Randy Tinseth, Boeing vice-president of marketing, said in June.

"There will be just a handful moving forward. Things we do for VIPs, things we do for the president, military operations, but we don’t see a significant demand for passenger 747s," Tinseth said.

AFP