Boeing To End 747 Jumbo Jet Production After More Than 50 Years: Report

Demand for the iconic four-engine jet has dwindled in recent years and other factors have further pushed Boeing to stop making them entirely.

Boeing

Boeing will reportedly stop making 747 Jumbo Jets for good after it completes the last of the 16 aircraft currently on order now. The final 747 is now expected to roll off the line in the next two years or so, after which time the type will have been in production for more than five decades. The impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had across the air travel and aviation industries have only further depressed an already declining market for the iconic plane, which is lovingly nicknamed the "Queen of the Skies."

Bloomberg was first to report the impending closure of the 747 production line on July 2, 2020. Boeing has, so far, declined to confirm or deny that it has made any final decision about the future of the Jumbo Jet. The Chicago-headquartered plane-maker has reportedly not yet informed workers at its plant in Everett, Washington, near Seattle, where the latest version of these aircraft, the 747-8 variant, is assembled, about any upcoming changes. The facility in Everett, which has been responsible for pumping out finished 747s since the end of the 1960s, remains the largest building by volume in the world.

"At a build rate of half an airplane per month, the 747-8 program has more than two years of production ahead of it in order to fulfill our current customer commitments," Boeing told Bloomberg. "We will continue to make the right decisions to keep the production line healthy and meet customer needs."

As it stands now, Boeing has orders for 16 747-8F freighters, including an order for 12 from global logistics firm UPS. The remaining aircraft had been wrapped up in a legal dispute with the Volga-Dnepr Group in Russia. 

Melv_L - MACASR via Wikimedia

A UPS 747-8F freighter.

In January, the Russian company had informed Boeing that it might not be able to pay for four 747-8Fs it had ordered, as well as three 777F freighters, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, a U.S. court ruled against Volga-Dnepr in its attempt to block the re-sale of those aircraft to other customers. UPS has already agreed to buy one of these aircraft, bringing its total order to 13 aircraft.

There had already been growing signs that the 747 production line was nearing its end in recent years. Production had slowed to just one aircraft per month in 2015 and is now proceeding at only half of that rate.

In November 2019, Bloomberg also reported that Triumph Group, the largest of Boeing's Jumbo Jet subcontractors, was auctioning off manufacturing equipment from a plant in Hawthorne, California that makes 747-8 fuselages, signaling a slowing of work at that site. This facility has made the fuselage for every single 747 since PanAm ordered the very first examples in 1966. These initial Jumbo Jets, able to carry large numbers of passengers across long distances for the time, contributed to an already revolutionary moment in air travel spurred on by a host of new jet airliners.

Unfortunately, demand for 747-8 models, the only version of the Jumbo Jet still in production, has been dwindling in the past 15 years and airlines around the world have been steadily retiring older 747 models in recent years, too. Boeing hasn't sold a 747-8i passenger subvariant, the first flight of which took place in 2010, since  the U.S. Air Force bought two to convert into new VC-25B Air Force One presidential aircraft in 2017. These aircraft were not new production, however, having been built originally for the now-defunct Russian airline Transaero.

Matt Hartman/Shorealone Films

One of two 747-8is destined for conversion into VC-25B Air Force Ones.

The prospects for additional sales seem to be increasingly limited. Beyond possible commercial or even private buyers, the only real potential military order would be for a variant to meet the U.S. Air Force's requirement for an aircraft to replace its existing 747-based E-4B Nightwatch doomsday planes. This would probably be a long shot, though, and it seems more likely that a derivative of a smaller aircraft, such as the 767-based KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker.

All told, Boeing has sold less than 50 747-8is to date. If the 747-8 production run ends after the company fulfills its current orders, it will have produced just over 153 examples, in total, including those configured as freighters. Sheila Kahyaoglu, an analyst with the Jeffries Financial Group, told Bloomberg that Boeing has lost an estimated $40 million on each 747-8 sold since 2016. 

Boeing's experience reflects a general market trend, as well. In 2019, European aviation consortium Airbus announced that it would shutter production of its A380, the only real direct competitor to the 747, in 2021 due to lack of demand. When that production line shuts down, a total of 251 A380s will have been built, a fraction of the more than 1,550 747s of all models that Boeing has built since the 1960s.

Maarten Visser via Wikimedia

An A380 belonging to Emirates, the largest single operator of the type.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated the air travel industry and caused a widespread global economic downturn, has only further compounded the situation. The air cargo industry has fared better, but there is still not nearly enough demand there to justify keeping the 747-8F production line going. 

Boeing's commercial side has run into a number of other serious issues in the past decade or so unrelated to the 747, as well. This includes difficulties in the development, initial production, and early years of service of its 787 Dreamliner airliners in the late 2000s and early 2010s and, more recently, the massive scandal surrounding the 737 MAX.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among others, grounded 737 MAXs in 2019 following a series of deadly crashes. The FAA recently concluded a series of re-certification tests on the 737 MAX in cooperation with Boeing, a major step forward toward getting those aircraft back in the air. However, EASA has already said that it will run its own tests to determine whether the aircraft are safe to fly again and Boeing had already lost a large number of sales of the type in the intervening months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Shutting down the already increasingly unprofitable 747 line would certainly offer a way to try to defray at least some of the company's other losses. Boeing could then potentially use that the newly freed-up production space and other associated resources for other purposes. 

Of course, 747s of various types, including freighters and the future VC-25B Air Force ones, will continue to fly for decades to come after the production of new Jumbo Jets ends. At the same time, the instantly recognizable 747 family has entered into the twilight of its existence.

Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com