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February 06, 2017

"Getting There": The End of Jumbo Jets

Hard to believe, but it was 45 years ago that the first 747 carried passengers when KLM debuted its commercial service.  Since then, the iconic jumbo jet has carried millions in relative comfort and safety.  But now, its days are numbered.

Last summer Boeing said it was possible that it would end production of the 747 (with the possible exception of a pair of replacements for Air Force One, if the Trump White House doesn’t kill the plan). Even the much larger A-380, a double-deck Airbus, may have seen its sales peak.

Airbus spent $25 billion to develop the world’s largest passenger plane, but only 319 have been ordered (compared to more than 1500 747’s).  And of that number, 125 have yet to be delivered, 60 of those destined for Emirates Airline.  In 2015, the A-380 (which can carry over 850 passengers) saw just three new orders.

Why are the jumbo jets losing favor?  It’s a matter of simple economics:  they’re too expensive to operate compared with newer planes like the smaller 787 and A-350. 

It takes a very busy travel corridor to fill an 800-seat airplane.  And flying one jumbo instead of two smaller planes means fewer departure time options for passengers.  The A-380 makes sense for hub-and-spoke airlines like Emirates which routes all its flights through Dubai for connections.  But rival airlines can fly direct, city to city, up to 8000 miles non-stop using the smaller jets.

Sure, the 787 doesn’t offer the First Class suites ($21,000 one way) that you’ll find on an A-380 (each with its own min-bar, gourmet meals, lie-flat bed and a shower spa).  But those amenities are out of reach to all but the plutocrats.  And even Arab oil sheiks are pinching pennies these days.
But even as the major airlines are shrinking their planes to save on fuel, one airline is doing the opposite. Virgin Atlantic is thinking of bringing back the supersonic transport, or SST.

Tentatively named “Boom”, the new craft would carry 45-50 passengers at mach 2.2, faster than the old Concorde which was retired in 2003.  And the smaller craft would be capable of longer distances:  5000 miles vs. the Concorde’s 4500).  That means that New York to London (3441 miles) would take just 3.5 hours compared to 7 hours on a jumbo jet.

But the extended range of Boom would also make it possible to fly Seattle to Tokyo (4763 miles), something Concorde could never achieve without stopping for fuel.  And given a new design, Boom would operate cost efficiently at sub-sonic speeds over land to avoid the sonic boom.  The Concorde burned about a ton of fuel per passenger crossing the Atlantic.  Just taxiing from the terminal at Heathrow for take-off, the old Concorde burned more fuel than an A-320 flying from London to Paris.

They’re still crunching the numbers on the Boom, but with roundtrip first class fares JFK to London now standing at $8000, the Branson team at Virgin think they could offer the same trip for $5000!  A small prototype of the Boom is being built to test the concept.

So enjoy the jumbo jets while you can.  Their days may be numbered and your aviation future may be smaller… but much faster.  If you’re like 99% of all fliers who sit in “the back of the bus”, you may not miss the jumbos a whole lot.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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