Fifty years on, Boeing's 747 clings to life as cargo carrier

Fifty years on, Boeing's 747 clings to life as cargo carrier

FILE PHOTO: A British Airways Boeing 747 passenger aircraft is parked at Heathrow Airport in west L
FILE PHOTO: A British Airways Boeing 747 passenger aircraft is parked at Heathrow Airport in west London April 7, 2011. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File Photo

SEATTLE: Boeing's 747 jumbo jet, an aircraft that democratised global air travel in the 1970s but fell behind modern twin-engine passenger jets, has bounced back from near death to mark its 50-year flying anniversary on Saturday, thanks to a cargo market boom fueled by online shopping.

Boeing's "Queen of the Skies" is the world's most easily recognised jetliner with its humped fuselage and four engines. It is now enjoying a second, perhaps less glamorous life, as a cargo mule for companies like United Parcel Service.

"It's an efficiency machine for us," said Jim Mayer, a spokesman for UPS, the world's largest package deliverer.

FILE PHOTO: Handout of the space shuttle Endeavour, atop NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at it
FILE PHOTO: The space shuttle Endeavour, atop NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified 747 jetliner, flies over Houston, Texas in this September 19, 2012 NASA handout photo. REUTERS/Sheir Locke/NASA/Handout/File Photo

UPS ordered 14 more 747-8 freighters in 2018, a lifeline that helps ease doubts over the future of the jumbo, which looks set to outlive its European competitor, Airbus SE's A380.

Airbus is looking "extremely seriously" at closing its superjumbo A380 factories sooner than expected, Reuters reported in January, after Dubai's Emirates indicated it might switch its A380 orders to the smaller A350.

Unlike the 747, Europe's superjumbo does not have a freighter version to help absorb slack demand.

Boeing had said in 2016 it could end 747 production amid falling orders and pricing pressure. Major US carriers like United Continental Holdings and Delta Air Lines have already said goodbye to the 747.

FILE PHOTO: Workers load the Solar Impulse aircraft into a Cargolux Boeing 747 cargo aircraft at Pa
FILE PHOTO: Workers load the Solar Impulse aircraft into a Cargolux Boeing 747 cargo aircraft at Payerne airport, Switzerland, February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener/File Photo

By keeping the 747 alive, Boeing avoids charges and layoffs for halting production at the mammoth wide-body plant outside Seattle.

It also shields newer programs like the 787 Dreamliner and the latest model of 777, which would have to bear a larger share of the plant's huge overhead if the 747 line went dark.

Still, the 747's extended lifespan could be tempered by US-China trade tensions and concerns about a broader economic slowdown threatening freighter demand.

FILE PHOTO: A Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747 cargo flight emerges behind a taxi
FILE PHOTO: A Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747 cargo flight emerges behind a taxi at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport, June 15, 1998. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

Global air cargo rose 3.5 per cent in 2018 compared with 9.7 per cent in 2017, according to the latest data from the International Air Transport Association. 

The 747, which had its maiden flight on Feb 9, 1969 and entered service on Pan American World Airways in January 1970, allowed for more affordable air travel due to its size and range.

It still flies passengers for Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China, and does have one other role.

The US government asked Boeing in 2017 to repurpose two 747-8 jetliners for use as Air Force One by the US president. The two aircraft are due to be delivered by December 2024, painted red, white and blue.

The US$3.9 billion contract followed President Donald Trump's objection to the US$4 billion price tag of a previous Air Force One deal. He tweeted that "costs are out of control" and added "Cancel order!"

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Lisa Baertlein in Louisville, Kentucky and Jamie Freed in Singapore; Editing by Tracy Rucinski and Matthew Lewis)

Source: Reuters/na

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