26 November 2005

Not just a plane

Boeing recently announced it was launching a completely revised and extended version of the Boeing 747 – called the Boeing 747-8 (pictured). Now to some it is just a response to the enormous Airbus A380. It has a longer fuselage, more fuel efficient and quieter engines, greater range and new interior (larger staircase and scope to put bunks on a level above the main cabin).
However, none of that is too important – I think it is time to celebrate what the Boeing 747 is – it is not just a plane, it was a revolution in travel and changed society far greater than any recycling scheme or whingeing anti-globalisation activist ever did.

In January 1970 Pan Am started flying the first commercial Boeing 747 service -London-New York. The 747 was originally developed to meet the call for a large military transport, a contract Boeing failed to get, so it was adapted to be a passenger airliner – which was almost three times the capacity of the Boeing 707 – then the most successful long haul airliner.

The revolution the 747 introduced was to make long distance air travel affordable and easy for millions of people. Only fifteen years before the 747, aviation was the preserve of the very wealthy – ships were the means for most to get between countries, and trains within them. The Boeing 707 made some difference, as it halved the travel time for international flights – but the 747, by providing enormous capacity truly made economy class the dominant means of air travel. It was more comfortable as well – the wider body being more spacious than single aisle aircraft, and in flight movies became the norm (now superseded by individual screens at all seats).
It was the 747 that finally killed off the scheduled ocean liner business – few wanted to spend days or weeks to cover distances that could now take hours. When you next cross the Pacific or the Atlantic by air, look down at the vast void of the ocean and imagine that for every hour you are travelling it would take a day by sea (24 hours) – the Wright Brothers would have been astounded.

Airlines now had an airliner, which was more fuel efficient than the 707, with 2-3x the capacity, to fill. It was no faster, but in order to fill those seats airlines had to be innovative with fares, offering discounts for early purchase – and it was in the 1970s that easy, affordable international air travel became accessible for the average person in developed countries. To take one example, the price for a return economy class flight from New Zealand to London in 1983 was around $2200 – a price that is largely unchanged, while incomes and other prices have risen dramatically. That is testament to the improved fuel efficiency of aircraft and competition in aviation.

The 747 of today uses 25% less fuel than the first 747s, and produces half the noise – that from a profit motivated American company (aren't they meant to destroy the environment?).

That travel has seen the rise of the “OE” (overseas experience) whereby young people can now afford to fly halfway around the world to live and work, and experience a foreign culture and way of life. Families that were long divided through migration could visit each other regularly – people could have friends in other countries that they could actually meet up with from time to time. The world became smaller thanks to the Boeing 747.

It also has changed business. The appearance in the late 1970s of business class, to fill the price and service gap between first and economy demonstrates that – businesspeople could now go from one side of the world to the other, economically, within 30 hours – reduced to 24 hours as the range of the 747 reduced the need for refuelling stops. The enormous growth in business travel has complemented tourist travel – as the price of business and first class tickets helps keep economy class tickets cheap. On top of that, the 747 revolutionised air cargo – not just for mail, but perishable commodities and small high value products. The first orders for the new 747-8 are for cargo versions. The Boeing 747 has encouraged growth in wealth, jobs and trade.

This big bird isn’t exactly the most attractive creature of the sky to most, but I think it is magnificent. On 5 October 1905, Wilbur Wright flew a record 39 minutes in the air for a distance of 39km, largely circling – today at any one time there are hundreds of machines of around 400 tonnes, carrying around 300 or so people, flying 11km high, at 900km/h, watching movies, eating meals, drinking wine, sleeping, reading – as they go non-stop between locations such as London and Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sydney, Singapore and Frankfurt.

Yes there are many other planes that have followed on, the Airbuses (thanks to European subsidies) and all the other, smaller Boeings, and others. However, in almost all cases, they followed in the footsteps of the 747.

However, Boeing risked bankruptcy in proceeding with the 747 – had it failed, shareholders, employees and the world would have been worse off – and most of those who don’t even think twice about the 747 would not have helped them out. Boeing even thought the 747 was an interim model, until supersonic flight had become widespread and economic – which was to prove wrong.

So salute Boeing – the 747 – and all that succeed it. It is one of the great inventions of capitalism that has changed your world for the better, and just imagine where the minds of the 21st century will take commercial aviation.

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