Eric Tegler

Yesterday afternoon, BoeingBA +1.6% held a live-streamed ceremony from its Everett, Washington production facility celebrating the final 747 delivery. The ceremony simultaneously reflected the iconic success of the over 1,500 Jumbo Jets the company has produced, the still unfolding operational life of the 747, and the luster Boeing has arguably lost.

The last 747 (N863GT) in 55 years of production is a 747-8F freighter. It’s the 1,574th airplane manufactured, destined for service with air cargo airline, AtlasATCO -0.1% Air, which counts 56 Jumbos in its fleet making it the world’s largest 747 freighter operator.

At the ceremony Atlas Air president, John Dietrich, reflected on the honor of taking the final delivery of Boeing’s “Queen of the Skies” (Atlas ordered the last four 747-8s), reflecting on the fact that Atlas has used its 747s to carry everything from “race cars to race horses”. He also pointed out the 747’s role in ongoing support missions to Ukraine which Atlas – the largest civilian provider of airlift to the U.S. military – continues to carry out.

A crowd of thousands gathered in a massive hangar at Boeing’s Paine Field for the ceremony including workers who built the aircraft, designers who successively refined it, past and current company executives, and leaders of many of the most prominent 747 customers from Japan Airlines and Lufthansa to UPS.

United Parcel Service’ vice president of aircraft maintenance, Bill Moore, testified to a sentiment widely held both in the aviation industry and across the flying public. Noting that UPS has flown a vast array of cargo (even exotica like whale sharks) on its 747 freighters, he added, “Our crew members bid to fly the airplane, just to say they’ve flown a 747.”

They’ll be able to continue to do that for quite a while. Boeing and its commercial customers forecast that 747s will serve as freighters (and for a considerable time as passenger aircraft) for another 50 years. Ironically, such a span would be longer than Atlas Air has been in existence.

Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr, gave a nod to the 747’s legacy in having “made the world substantially smaller” by changing the economics of airline flying. Its passenger capacity and economies of scale made mass air travel cheaper, extending flying to a wider segment of the world than before it appeared.

Lufthansa is the largest operator the passenger version of the 747-8 with 19 still in service set to remain so for a decade or more. According to aviation analytics firm, Cirium, there were 44 passenger versions of the 747 in service as of December 2022. However, that number may rise.

Last week, Reuters reported that delegates to the annual Airline Economics conference in Dublin were told that manufacturers are missing their delivery targets for narrow and widebody aircraft alike. Pandemic related upheaval and disrupted supply chains have put production of as many as 2,400 aircraft behind schedule, a backlog that may take years to work through. Air LeaseAL +1.7% Executive Chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy told the conference that manufacturers had “grossly misjudged” their production capacity.

Maintenance delays are compounding the production shortage, leading to higher costs (and airfares) as well as the retrieval of widebody aircraft (including 747s) stored during COVID for placement back into service. According to European travel/tourism publication Travel Tomorrow, China’s recent opening has added pressure to a shortage of long-haul first-class cabin capacity. The demand has spurred eight airlines to bring back passenger aircraft including 747s to meet demand until their orders for new Boeing 777-9s and Airbus A350s can be filled.

The Queen of the Skies has been meeting airline demand since the 1970s. Finished after just 28 months of design and initial production, the 747 made its first flight on February 9, 1969. The big transport debuted operationally on Pan-Am Airlines’ New York-London route in January of 1970. A scant seven months after that another Pan Am 747 was hi-jacked and diverted to Cuba where it landed under the gaze of Fidel Castro.

Dubbed the “Jumbo Jet” by the media, the 747-100 was about 1.5 times as large as a Boeing 707 and could carry 440 passengers compared to the 707’s modest 189 headcount. It eventually went on to serve in a variety of roles that stretched from airliner and freighter to NASA Space Shuttle transporter, “Doomsday” command and control aircraft (the E-4B) and today’s U.S. presidential transport.

The farewell ceremony notwithstanding, there are still two more Boeing 747 deliveries to come. A pair of new 747-8-based VC-25Bs ordered for the White House (flown under the call sign “Air Force One” when the U.S. President is on board) are slated to be delivered by late 2026 or 2027 – two to three years behind schedule.

Their delay is a reminder of five-plus years of Boeing company and program tumult from its troubled 737 Max safety issues and 777/787 delays to its still-unresolved KC-46 deficiencies, problems with its T-7A Redhawk and recently missed earnings expectations.

Wrapping up the ceremony in front of Atlas Air’s new jet, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun obliquely alluded to his company’s woes in saying, “If ever a company needed to stand-tall on its legacy, it’s the Boeing company.”

The 747 has been sold to 100-plus customers and over time the fleet has logged more than 118 million flight hours and nearly 23 million flight cycles. These are sterling numbers and a tribute to the five decades worth of Boeing employees who’ve made them a reality.

But Calhoun’s assertion that the company’s future is assured by “hangers full of innovation” had better prove true if Boeing is to thrive when the last “7-4” ceases flying 50 years from now.