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Can a Reborn Jetliner Again Change the World — or Look Good Trying?

By Patrick Smith
March 5, 2007

Patrick Smith returns to Airliners.net with a history of Boeing's most graceful and timeless bird, and tells of how Boeing has recently looked back to its roots to recreate its style. Smith also demonstrates how Boeing’s innovation is exactly what will keep the manufacturer ahead of the competition.

In the mid-1960s, the engineers and aerodynamicists at Boeing faced a momentous task. Their assignment: to build the largest commercial jetliner ever conceived—one that would feature twice the tonnage and capacity of any existing plane—and make it pretty. Where to begin?

Well, specifically, you begin in the front, and in the back. “Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems,” explains the architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a recent issue of The New Yorker. “How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky—the top and the bottom, in other words.” By thinking of a jetliner as a horizontal skyscraper, we understand that its beauty is gained or lost chiefly through the sculpting of the nose and tail.

The plane eventually fashioned by Boeing was the iconic 747. It’s perhaps telling that today, strictly from memory, with the aid only of a pencil and a lifetime of watching airplanes, I am able to sketch both the fore and aft sections of the 747 with a startling degree of accuracy. Even for a talentless illustrator like myself, the sweeps and angles of the nose and empennage are drawn almost effortlessly. Looking at the finished product—or at a real 747 out on the tarmac—one notices an organic flow to the jet’s silhouette. For all its square-footage and power, it maintains a graceful, understated elegance.

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Photo © Sam Chui

The vertical stabilizer rises to greater than 60 feet—half or so the height of many airport control towers. Though essentially a six-story aluminum billboard, there’s something sexy in the fin’s cant—like the angled foresail of a schooner.

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Photo © Ian Knight

Up front, it’s hard to look at a 747 without focusing on the plane’s most famous feature—its sloping, second-story penthouse deck. The 747 is often, and rather unfairly, derided as “bubble-topped” or “humpbacked.” In truth, while providing the plane with its most recognizable feature, the upper-deck annex is softly and smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward—the cockpit windscreens anthropomorphizing as eyebrows—to a stately and confident prow. All together, the plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner.

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Photo © Sung-Yang Tong

“A gentleman’s airplane,” as one captain puts it. Or, putting it another way, it looks like what it is: an impeccable piece of high industrial art.

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Photo © Ken Rose

In the second grade, my two favorite toys both were Boeing 747s. The first was an inflatable replica—similar to one of those novelty balloons you buy at parades—with rubbery wings that drooped in such violation of the real thing that I taped them into position. To a nine year-old the toy seemed enormous, almost like my own personal Macy’s float. Second was a plastic plane about twelve inches long, with rubber wheels. Like the balloon, it was decked out in the livery of Pan Am, and even carried the name and registration of the airline’s flagship jumbo, Clipper America. One side of the fuselage was transparent, made of clear polystyrene through which an entire interior, row-by-row, could be viewed. The blue and red pastels of the tiny chairs is something I can still picture exactly.

But what most infatuated me was the spiral staircase, modeled in perfect plastic miniature near the toy plane’s nose. Early version 747s were always outfitted with a set of spiral stairs, leading from the forward boarding door to the plane’s famous upper deck, a design quirk that, in my mind if nobody else’s, became an iconic representation of the airplane. In 1982, when I took my first trip on a real 747, I beamed at the sight of the winding column of steps, materializing just beyond the El Al purser who greeted me at the end of the Jetway. It gave the entranceway the look and feel of a lobby, like the grand vestibule of a cruise ship. Those stairs are in my blood—a genetic helix spinning upward to a kind of pilot Nirvana. (Alas, updated 747s dispatched with spirals and adopted a traditional, ladder-style staircase.)

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Photo © Paris Tsantis

In league with the Concorde, the 747 is one of the only true Jet Age celebrities. Since Concorde’s retirement in 2003, it stands by itself as civil aviation’s signature product—one of very few eminently and instantly distinguishable aircraft. Even the name itself—the rakish tilt of the 7s and the lyrical, palindromic ring: Seven-forty-seven.

From the other side of the Atlantic has come a different approach. “Air does not yield to style,” is a refrain attributed some years ago to an engineer at Airbus Industrie, Boeing’s main competitor. Right or wrong, he was addressing the fact that modern civil aircraft designs, the 747 and a few others notwithstanding, have been rapidly devolving to a point of total genericism. Jet Age romantics recall the provocative curves of machines like the Caravelle; the urbane superiority of the needle-nosed Concorde; the gothic surety of the 727.

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Photo © Bob Garrard
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Photo © Thomas Reich

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Photo © Ivan Simonov

Now, they’re telling us, planes need to be boring, or worse, because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be. Not everyone believes it, and there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Boeing and Airbus have been at each other’s throats since the latter’s entry onto the aerospace battlefield with the A300, the first twin-engine widebody, in 1974. Those thirty years of competition reveal an odd cultural juxtaposition. The 747 isn’t the only good looking plane to emerge from Seattle in the past three decades, while after five baseline models and scores of variants, Airbus has given us only one true head-turner—the long-range A340. True to their contention that air and style are zero-sum variables, the Airbus consortium has produced a line of aircraft at once technologically exquisite and visually banal. Not long ago I was standing in an airport boarding lounge when a group of young women, seated near a window, began giggling as a small jetliner passed by the window. “Check out that goofy little plane,” one of the girls giggled. It was an Airbus A320, which you have to admit looks vaguely, well, dwarfish, as if it popped form an Airbus vending machine or hatched from an egg. You’d expect more, maybe, at $60 million apiece. And from the French, no less, builders of the Caravelle and who partnered in that most haughtily unmistakable of all airborne contraptions, Concorde. At heart, this is the story of a peculiar cultural victory—the Americans as the elite, trumping those boorish, tasteless Europeans. Who knew?

At Airbus, the pinnacle of aesthetic disregard was finally achieved upon rollout of the company’s latest and much-ballyhooed creation: the enormous, double-decked A380. With a maximum takeoff weight of 1,291,000 pounds, it is the first civilian airliner to exceed the million-pound mark. The Airbus A380 is the largest, most powerful, and most expensive commercial plane in history. And possibly the ugliest. With its abruptly pitched forehead and immense, swollen fuselage, it calls to mind a steroidal whale. I can’t begin to sketch the tail. It looks like a dozen other tails, except much bigger.

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Photo © Sam Chui

Though, at the same time, not radically bigger. When the 747 debuted with Pan Am in 1970 (JFK-Heathrow was its maiden voyage), it was more than double the size and weight of its closest competitor, the stretched DC-8 from Douglas. A million pounds sure sounds like a lot—and indeed it is—but the Airbus A380 weighs in only about a third beyond the 747’s 875,000 pounds. Meanwhile, its much-hyped capacity limits of 800-plus passengers, not unlike the 747’s 570-plus potential, is likely to be seen only in rare, charter-only configurations. When it enters service with Singapore Airlines and Emirates in mid-2006, it will have room for about 500 riders. Some carriers, concentrating on first and business cabin amenities, are planning fewer seats than are found today on most 747s. The A380 is big; revolutionary it’s not.

To considerable extent, new aircraft are conceived in deference to carefully monitored aerodemographics, both present and future: Which markets are expanding the fastest? What are the average segment lengths and anticipated volumes in those markets? Nowadays, the planes being churned out by Boeing and Airbus are predominately the smaller 737 and A320, many of them going to fill the skies over Malaysia, Brazil, India and China, where local, inexpensive air service is growing exceptionally fast. Soon, estimates say, one in five planes will be built for the Chinese. India, once the realm of only two serious airlines and a small pool of passengers who could afford fares, is now home to a half dozen voracious upstarts and an expanding middle class able and eager to patronize them. The 747 was built for a market—high capacity, long-haul—that while potentially prodigious, technically didn’t exist yet. At the end of the 1960s, no shortage of people, everyone knew, craved the opportunity to travel nonstop between Europe and America, Asia and Europe. But until the 747, no plane was big enough, or had enough range, to make it happen on a large—and, for the consumer, affordable—scale. Boeing’s 707, a kind of 747 in miniature, got things started when it ushered in the jet age by 1960, but it lacked the economies of scale to adequately exploit some of the most distantly separated and heavily traveled city pairs.

Juan Trippe, visionary leader of Pan Am, who’d been at the vanguard of the 707 project, persuaded Boeing CEO William Allen that an airplane of more than twice the 707’s capacity was not only possible, but a revolution waiting to happen. He was right, even if vindication didn’t come easy; Boeing took the chance and built Trippe his superjet, nearly bankrupting itself in the process. Absent Juan Trippe and Pan Am, there might never have been a 747. On January 21, 1970, Pan Am’s Clipper Victor made the maiden voyage on the New York-London milk run, and the dynamics of global air travel were never again the same. It’s not a stretch to consider the advent of the 747 as the most crucial turning point in the history of commercial aviation, allowing millions of fliers to cover tremendous distances at great speed—at affordable fares.

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Photo © Ken Rose

The tectonics of this shift were, as tends to be the case when grand technological marvels do their thing, good and bad. Out went a de-facto caste system in which only the well-heeled could fly; in came air rage, endless queues, and luggage bins jammed with backpacks. Out went four-course dinners and tuxedoed stewards; in came super-savers to Europe for $199.

Fast forward 35 years, and of actively manufactured passenger jets of any size, only the 747’s little brother, the twin-motored 737, has sold more copies. The 747, five baseline models and several sub-variants later, is one the best-selling airiners in history, and is still coming off the assembly line.

But no airplane, regardless of how pleasing to the eye or rewarding to the stockholder, stays in production forever. If they did, we’d all be riding around on DC-3s. In fact, several years have passed since the last North American airline ordered a passenger-carrying version of the 747. The bulk of recent sales have been freighter models, ordered by airlines in Asia. By the middle of 2005 the order books at Boeing showed a mere 28 ships awaiting construction.

The long-haul hubs-and-spokes that were once the venerable jumbo’s dominion have been steadily fragmenting. Years ago, one could stand on the rooftop of the Pan Am Worldport at Kennedy airport and watch 10 747s roar past in a row, bound for London, Frankfurt, Tokyo or Rome. Today those departures are likely to be smaller aircraft such as the 767 and A330. Leaner and cheaper to run, these planes are able to bring in consistent long-haul profits even with a comparatively paltry 200 or so seats. And for an American in the 1970s, heading overseas meant catching a flight on TWA or Pan Am from one of the country’s few transoceanic gateways (particularly JFK). In 2006 it might be a US Airways flight out of Philadelphia; United from Washington-Dulles; Delta from Cincinnati. Much the same was happening in Europe and Asia: more flights from more cities, using smaller planes. By the 1990s, the success of Boeing’s own 777, a twin-engine long-hauler with near-747 lift at a portion of the operating expenses, made the 747’s prospects for a fourth or fifth decade look increasingly bleak.

But while all this was going on, the need for a new, ultra-high capacity aircraft was still out there—albeit in lesser numbers than in times past, and mostly on routes to or from Asia. Repeatedly, Boeing tinkered with the idea of overhauling the 747 to target this niche, each time deciding against it. Airbus, on the other hand, and after no lack of hesitance on its own part, went ahead with the A380. As we saw earlier, the bulbous new ‘bus is statistically only a slightly larger 747, but it brims with all the fanciest gadgetry and the promise of unprecedented reliability. And, it will boast the lowest seat-mile operating costs—i.e. how many pennies it takes to move one person one mile, the gauge by which jetliners live and die—ever seen.

Airbus had been feeling cocky. The seeming demise of the 747 wasn’t the only bad news for Boeing. As details for the A380 were being hashed out, the high-tech Airbus A320 was sucker-punching the like-sized 737; the upmarket A330 and A340 were soon outselling the 767 and 777. Boeing’s 757, by this point a relic of 1970s, was withdrawn from production. All sorts of advantages were in play for the Airbus line, not the least of which was its intelligent use of shared systems—in the vernacular, “systems” pertains to all of a plane’s onboard plumbing and electronics—and cockpit commonality. Airbus planes vary greatly in size, but the pilot from a narrowbody A320 can transition to the much heavier A340 with only a minimum of retraining. By comparison, a crewman switching between Boeings, whether from large to small or small to large—needs weeks of classroom and simulator time. Boeing’s planes seemed mismatched, its innovation atrophied. By 2003, for the first time ever, it delivered fewer planes than Airbus.

Then, something happened. First came announcement of the Boeing 787, a radically modern airframe aimed at the mid-sized market and targeted for a 2007 inaugural flight. Nicknamed the “Dreamliner,” the 787 will be sculpted almost exclusively of lightweight composites, and will feature a suite of the most technologically advanced systems yet developed. The airlines loved it. Beginning with an order from Japan’s All Nippon Airways, they began snapping up reservations. Airbus, caught flat-footed and not sure how to react, came forth with a relatively conventional A330 derivative, which it insists on calling the A350. Meanwhile, the little 737 began bouncing back against the A320, while at the widebody end, the 777 was holding its own. All that remained was a yeah or neah on the fate of Boeing’s capstone jet, the 747.

The Dreamliner © Boeing

Finally, as if the ghost of Juan Trippe himself (he died in 1981) had drifted down for a pep talk, a revived and reinvigorated Boeing made the move it should have made six or seven years ago—announcing in November, 2005, that it would, after several teases and false starts, go ahead and produce an advanced 747.

For now, if not permanently, it is designated the 747-8. The nomenclature is a departure from Boeing’s usual ordered suffixing of -100, -200, -300, etc. While the aerogeek purist might gasp in disaffection, the name is a wily overture to Asia, where the bulk of sales are expected and where, in some cultures, the number 8 is considered fortuitous. The -8 will be available in both passenger and cargo options—the latter slightly larger.

The 747-8 © Boeing

The passenger version will have a fuselage stretch of 12 feet, bringing total length to just over 223 feet. Inside, the cabin will offer room for about 35 additional seats. Those are not extensive, A380-esque enlargements, but any extra seating is only of mild intent. Boeing’s real mission is to upgrade the plane’s internal architecture to cutting-edge standards. To do so, it will draw from advancements in place on the 777, and those planned for the 787. While hardly obsolete, existing 747 technology is a full generation behind; the -400, the most advanced variant now flying, was developed in the 1980s.

In terms of range and capacity, the -8 will nestle in between the 777 and the A380—exactly where the 747-400 is positioned today. The worldwide 747 fleet stands at about 1,000—more than any Boeing model save the 737—and most of those ships will be facing retirement during the next two decades. For companies like Japan Airlines, with more than 60 747s already on its roster, sticking with the platform would entail a relatively seamless transition.

And showcasing a freighter option right from the start—cargo variants typically arrive later—is a way for Boeing to hedge its bets. Airbus has done the same with the A380, but the 747’s well-established history as an outstanding cargo-hauler assures a certain sales buffer should the passenger model stumble. Not surprisingly, the earliest 747-8 commitments, for up to 35 examples, have come from a pair of renowned freight carriers, Japan’s Nippon Cargo Airlines and Luxembourg-based Cargolux. Both are long-time 747-F users. Service entry is scheduled for 2009.

Thus, the 747-8 might seem to be less of a head-to-head rival to theA380 than a replacement option for 747s now in the air. But in truth, numerous airlines are currently undecided on taking that extra step toward the bigger, more expensive Airbus. Presence of the 747-8 could send many, or even most of them, running to Boeing. Why stake your future on an altogether unproven airframe? If an airline requires some prodding, Boeing is happy to promise a 12 percent fuel efficiency advantage, and an eye-popping 22 percent trip cost advantage, over the Airbus. That’s 22 percent better operating costs per flight, but only a token fewer seats—i.e. less revenue—in most configurations. Numbers like that will find the A380, already behind schedule for its launch with Singapore Airlines this spring, in a darkening competitive corner.

And should the whole thing flop? Boeing has put up about $4 billion for 747-8, with most of the R&D borrowed from prior, already funded projects. In concocting its own behemoth from scratch, Airbus has spent three times that amount.

But in my opinion, the best thing to like about the 747-8 isn’t the impressiveness of its performance data or its chances for sales. Quite simply, I’m enamored of the way it looks. Prominent tweaks are an all-new, futuristically raked wing, an extended upper deck, and a foursome of scalloped nacelles that help reduce engine noise. But from every angle it remains true to the original 747 profile.

As a kid, watching a whole generation of commercial airliners go ugly in front of me, I often wondered: why couldn’t somebody take a classic airliner, apply some aerodynamic nip and tuck, imbibe it with the latest cockpit and systems gizmos, and give it new life? Not as a retro novelty project, but as legitimate and viable airliner. Design trends speak to their age, it’s true, but commercial planes are built to last 20, 30, or 40 years. Certain forms are, or ought to be, permanently comfortable in that range. The 747-8 is one of those forms, and if Boeing’s back-to-the-future gamble isn’t the smartest thing to happen in commercial aviation in recent years, it’s definitely the slickest.

Over in Toulouse, Airbus is sucking its teeth, but swears the A380 is no white elephant. And how can we not agree? Looking at that beluga forehead again, that’s not doing justice to the grace of elephants. Does air yield to style? Maybe that’s the wrong question. For it certainly yields to a little imagination and effort.

The 747-8 © Boeing

Written by
Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and air travel columnist who lives near Boston. His weekly articles at Salon are archived here. His book, "Ask The Pilot, Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel," was published by Riverhead Books in 2004, and was Amazon.com's Editors Choice for best travel book of the year. Patrick's home page is www.askthepilot.com.

19 User Comments:
Username: DennisPB [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-06 21:00:54 and read 32768 times.

just wanted to say what a nice peice(reading). truely enjoyed it, keep up the good work...Dennis

Username: RIXrat [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-07 21:23:35 and read 32768 times.

Good article. The only complaint I have is that it is about two years out of date. A lot of things have happened in the airline manufacturing industry since 2005. However, it is a good read.

Username: Smashme33 [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-07 22:28:35 and read 32768 times.

An excellent read, and good photos to illustrate your piece. Great job!

Username: AutoThrust [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-14 12:22:37 and read 32768 times.

Thoug this article has some good points, its pretty pro Boeing biased. It would be nice to see this read in a fair unobjective view. Btw there is no mention about the 747-XStrech or the Sonic Cruiser wich led to the 787. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder!

Username: NicolasRubio [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-16 00:19:22 and read 32768 times.

Beautiful. Just that, simply BEAUTIFUL piece of writing.

Nicolas Rubio

PS: Long live the 747!

Username: Wally0090 [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-19 18:19:47 and read 32768 times.

Nice writing, very enjoyable to read!

However I don't think I can agree with you on many points you have written in your article.

Yes, the 747 may be more elegant than the A380, but the A380 then on the other hand is far more superior in technology, efficiency (the whole lot!). So think for yourself, what would an airline rather have, the more elegant and sleek (which is in itself very debatable, for tastes vary enormously!) 747 or the superior and efficient A380?

Anyway, it could've been a little less biased!

(PS Trying to avoid the whole Boeing v. Airbus discussion here!)

Username: Ramchander [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-24 19:34:48 and read 32768 times.

good one

Username: Pillowtester [User Info]
Posted 2007-03-28 18:58:59 and read 32768 times.


Username: N5716b [User Info]
Posted 2007-04-01 16:32:49 and read 32768 times.

Very well done. And, while I agree there may be a pro-Boeing bias, I find myself in agreement. The A-380 just doesn't have that aesthetic flair that other aircraft (the L-1011 and MD-11, in particular) have.

I will freely admit to having a bias toward three engine aircraft.

Anyway, while it's true that the Airbus might have all the whiz-bang shiny in the cockpit, from a passenger (remember us?) standpoint, they're lacking in just about every measure, externally and internally.

And I refuse to get involved with the Boing-Airbust war. So far as I, the passenger (RU) am concerned, I'm more interested in getting to my destination safely, on time, and with a minimum of hassles.

Username: Kevo [User Info]
Posted 2007-04-21 05:28:17 and read 32768 times.

Wonderful article! My father was with Braniff for 32 years most of them at Newark. Being born in 1964 and being in an airline family, the 747 was an exciting part of my childhood. I watched the success of this beautiful aircraft unfold. First as a passionate young observer, then as a passenger on several big orange models. As this mechanical masterpiece and work of art approaches it's 40th birthday I am thankful that Boeing has chosen to stick with this timeless aircraft. Thank you Boeing for introducing cutting edge improvements and technilogical advancements to allow this "Queen of The Skies" to successfully soldier on for decades with the dignity and pride she has well earned.

PS I was fortunate enough to have such a cool Dad, in 5th grade he took me to Everett to tour the plant. I miss him.

Kevin Miller

Username: Invertebrate [User Info]
Posted 2007-05-29 02:22:17 and read 32768 times.

The author states only the Boeing 737 and 747 have exceeded the 1000 count in manufacturing. I don't have have the numbers but I believe the 727 is way over 1000, probably closer to 2000

Username: Aviateur [User Info]
Posted 2007-06-18 02:08:28 and read 32768 times.

>>> The author states only the Boeing 737 and 747 have exceeded the 1000 count in manufacturing. I don't have have the numbers but I believe the 727 is way over 1000, probably closer to 2000 <<<

You're correct on the 727, but I was talking about models still in production.

Patrick Smith

Username: GoDIA [User Info]
Posted 2007-07-18 01:43:38 and read 32768 times.

Excellent article.

I tend to agree with the author, even though the A340-600 and the A330 have SOME aesthetic appeal. But his view of the A380 is right on--it is ugly, overhyped, overpriced, and will almost certainly be a financial flop. Boeing has a MUCH better product in the 787 than Airbus' A350, and the near-certain failure of the A380 will cost Airbus dearly in the future.

Username: Burchfiel [User Info]
Posted 2007-08-01 21:21:40 and read 32768 times.

Personally, I think the A380 has plenty of beauty, if not from an aesthetic standpoint. In a fear-driven era of flight, where manufacturers and airlines are thinking small, compact and light, it's nice to see a company with enough heart to finally build the full double-decker plane. Contrary to what the article would purport, having a company design a plane with two full floors is revolutionary, and may very well pay off.

Username: EBJ1248650 [User Info]
Posted 2007-09-09 04:24:09 and read 32768 times.

Another jet airliner that stands out as unique: The DeHavilland Comet. In my mind, she's among the most beautiful airliners ever built. For elegance and style, she's supreme, especially in her 4C variant. For the British, the Comet is as much an icon as the 747 is for the US.

Username: Coolpictures [User Info]
Posted 2008-08-02 21:29:19 and read 32768 times.

cool and interest thing article. but difficult to understand. but i think it is a great job

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-01 18:13:06 and read 32768 times.

wow the 747 is so beautifull and so big!!!

Username: Hugo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-22 13:29:20 and read 32768 times.

Would have been far more effective if it were not so biased toward Boeing. While I love the 747, the A380 is not ugly at all.
wax lyrical about the 747 and Boeing but potshots at the competition weakens your case.

Username: Ckfred [User Info]
Posted 2011-03-28 17:25:34 and read 30624 times.

As good looking as the 747 is, I still think the best looking commercial jet aircraft is the Boeing 707. It just had the clean, elegant lines, the trademark bullet nose, and the gentle curve where the leading edge of the vertical fin meets the fuselage.

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