HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.
The Boeing 747 celebrated its 40th birthday this week. Champagne for everyone.
But what’s your toast? Greater things ahead for the 747? It is sort of shocking that a 40-year-old airplane still sets the industry standard. What does that say about commercial aviation itself? At best, it’s an industry that seems to be content to rest on its laurels – like the 747; at worst, its going backward, not forward.
Will the 747, or commercial aviation – as we know it, even exist in another 40 years? One wonders.
When the first Boeing 747 took to the skies on January 22, 1970, it marked a quantum leap forward in aircraft design, size, speed, and comfort. It was three times larger, and at its 640 m.p.h. cruising speed, considerably faster. For the commercial airline industry since then, it has been all downhill from there.
Disagree? Find anything that tops a 747. The workhorse of the industry is still the Boeing 737, which has been around even longer (in commercial use since 1968).
The closest anything has come is the late, great Concorde (1973-2003). Though it could cruise at 1,330 m.p.h. – twice as fast as conventional, sub-sonic aircraft – it was too small to carry a commercially viable number of passengers, and it was a gas hog. That meant it couldn’t serve many routes. Now it serves none.
The 747, now in its eighth generation, can fly just about any route in the world. South African Airlines flies 747s from New York’s JFK to Johannesburg, a 21-hour flight, which it claims is the world’s longest non-stop commercial airline route.
The 747’s weakness, if it has one, is in shorter flights. It’s too big for smaller airports, and its passenger capacity may be viewed as too great to fill for short hops.
But it is rare that a 747 is operated on flights within the U.S. nowadays. Though 1,400 have been made, capacity-strapped airlines have mothballed many; hundreds sit idle in storage fields (like in California’s Mojave Desert).
A sad sight indeed.
In its coast-to-coast heyday, the 747 reduced the flying time between LAX and JFK to about four hours. Now, lumbering, cramped, fuel-swilling 737s are often used for that route – and the flying time has ballooned to six hours and more.
More recently developed passenger aircraft, like the Airbus A380 (a good 80-100 m.p.h. slower than a 747), concentrate merely on cramming the most people in the tightest possible space, like cattle in boxcars in the sky.
Remember when train travel was so popular? For years, people tried to make faster and faster trains (in Japan and Europe they’re still trying) and tried to continually lower the transcontinental U.S. speed record. But the progression of train development in the U.S. slowed in the early 20th Century (their transcontinental times are now slower than they were 100 years ago); not surprisingly, passenger trains were largely supplanted by automobiles.
Will commercial aircraft someday be supplanted by something else? If ever an industry more regressive, had a lower customer satisfaction rating, and was more ripe for a disruptive technology to come along and replace it, I can’t think of a better example than commercial aviation. Will it be challenged by flying cars, personal jet packs, or Beam-Me-Up-Scotty type transporters? Somewhere there’s a budding Henry Ford waiting to revolutionize travel.
About the only visionary in the industry these days is Sir Richard Branson. His Virgin Galactic could begin test flights of his SpaceShipTwo passenger aircraft to Outer Space this year. Mr. Branson rightly believes that in aviation, the sky should be the limit.
Long live the 747, but it’s hard to look upon its 40th birthday as a sign of “progress.”
January 24, 2010