By Dilip Bobb
A glorious chapter in aviation history comes to an end.
I have had the good fortune of having flown in both of the world’s biggest airliners—the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and its modern rival, the Airbus A380. Nothing compares to the experience of flying these massive aircraft with their bulbous noses, four engines and twin decks. The pandemic has destroyed the travel and tourism industry, which includes airlines across the world and the first casualties are these two iconic aircraft.
Singapore Airlines has just parked its 747s and A380s in a “graveyard” at Alice Springs in Australia. British Airways, the world’s last major operator of the 747s, recently scrapped its entire fleet, in service with the airline since 1971. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines retired its 31 Boeing 747-400 aircraft for passenger use in April. Lufthansa, the German flag carrier, has also brought forward the retirement of five 747s as has Virgin Atlantic and French airline Corsair, while Airbus has announced that A380 production would end by 2021, signalling the end of a glorious era in aviation history.
I first stepped on board the 747 as a designated VIP flight, Air India 1, carrying the Prime Minister of India. As part of the accompanying media, I was on the lower deck, which was really the economy section converted into business class seating. It was, of course, a vastly different configuration from a normal passenger flight with the addition of a bedroom-suite for the PM and the First Class area meant for PMO officers and diplomats while the SPG security team occupied a separate section.
My second flight, on the Airbus A380, the largest commercial airliner ever built, was also a special flight but the configuration was what it would be for normal passenger flights. This was Singapore Airlines taking delivery of the first ever A380 from the Airbus facility in Toulouse, France, and on the flight were airline official and selected journalists from the region. To walk up a broad flight of stairs on an aircraft was a unique experience, as were the private suites on the upper deck for first class flyers, a bar and lounge on another level for hot food and beverages, with business and economy on another level. This was luxury, literally at its height. The normal passenger Air India jumbo which I flew in also had a narrower flight of stairs leading to the business class section while the pilots on both aircraft were seated high above in their elevated cabin, the equivalent height of a five-story building.
Now that Boeing has confirmed that it has stopped making parts for the 747, it signals the end of the aircraft dubbed the “Queen of the Skies”. More than 1,500 of the jumbo jets have been delivered over the 52 years it has been in service while Airbus has received 251 firm orders since its debut in 2007 with Emirates being the biggest A380 customer.
Analysts say the decline in passenger traffic as governments seek to contain the spread of Covid-19 has hastened the decline of the two planes, the jumbo and superjumbo, with airlines opting for smaller twin engine aircraft which cost less to operate. Singapore Airline, the only major operator of the two aircraft, has opted to mothball their fleet till the situation improves. Alice Springs, like the Arizona desert, has a dry climate ideal for preserving aircraft for long term storage.
The obituary for the 747 was written back in 2017, when Boeing received their last orders for a passenger version of the 747-8 to replace Air Force One, used by the American president. The end of the 747 is strictly a financial decision. Larger planes like the 747 and the A380 are only viable commercially on longer-distance, popular routes, making them less flexible for airlines. Smaller, newer aircraft are now capable of flying longer routes, making them more attractive as the industry faces years of slow recovery in air passenger demand.
The 747 typically accommodates 366 passengers while the A380-800 could seat up to 850 passengers but most airlines opted for a more comfortable 544 passenger configuration. Those seats will remain unoccupied as we could be seeing the last of these two giants of the skies (only cargo fights may operate) with the unique luxury, class and experience that only they could offer. They were, along with the Concorde, the most recognizable passenger aircraft ever flown, and their grounding is like being in a world without Rolls Royce, Maybach and Bentley.