Re-inventing the jumbo
After toying with a variety of all-new "Very Large Commercial Transport" and "New Large Aircraft" ideas in the early 1990s - and collaborative talks with Airbus and its partners - Boeing came close in 1996 to launching a family of major 747 stretch derivatives, the -500/600X and a rebodied -700X. However, an indifferent response from the market forced Boeing to shelve this plan - and a similar fate befell the proposed 747-X/747-X Stretch of 1999-2000.
© Jim Larsen
Following evaluation of another warmed-up 747-400 derivative, the -400X QLR (Quiet Longer Range) and a slightly stretched "-800X", plans were revealed in 2003 for a major development designated "747 Advanced". As this study evolved, Boeing adopted GE's new 787 powerplant, the GEnx, as a single-source engine for the new 747. The programme - a two-model family comprising a freighter as the lead variant and a 467-seat passenger model - was launched with orders from cargo carriers Cargolux and NCA in November 2005. Lufthansa joined the party a year later as the first customer for the passenger model.
Meanwhile, production of the -400 passenger variant was feeling the pressure from the 777-300ER and Airbus A340-600 - as well as the anticipated arrival of the A380. From 2003, annual output declined to fewer than 20 aircraft, and the last units were delivered in early 2005. Like the Classic before it, -400 low-volume production of the freighter continued, with the last of 1,418 747 deliveries taking place on 10 November 2009, to Kuwaiti cargo start-up LoadAir (the original 747 prototype RA001 was never delivered).
Throughout the four decades of production, 747 output has averaged over 35 aircraft a year, although boom-bust cycles have seen production rolling from spikes of 70-plus aircraft, down to the low-20s in the recessions.
The 747 programme has served Boeing extremely well. It knows that as the Jumbo's next chapter beckons, it has a hard act to follow.