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OM in the News: Product Life Cycle and the Boeing 747

June 11, 2018

1970: The aircrew of the first commercial passenger flight of the Boeing 747, which flew from NYC to London for Pan American Airways.

Having worked on the design team for McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10 jumbo jet in the late 1960’s, I have followed the industry and competition with great interest. The DC-10 died a fairly quick death, but Boeing’s even larger plane, the 747, became the iconic symbol of success when introduced in 1970. Only 180 of the original 747s, dubbed the Queen of the Skies, remain in passenger service. Boeing built more than 1,500 of them but the 24 orders that still remain on the books are all freighters. Delta and United, the last U.S. airlines flying the giant, both retired their remaining 747s late last year.

The 747—six stories tall, with a wingspan more than 70 yards wide and the fully loaded weight of 7 M1 Abrams tanks—was a breakthrough in aviation, writes The Wall Street Journal (June 7, 2018). It revolutionized international air travel, bringing affordable tickets to the masses and making it far easier to jet between continents.

At the time, aircraft design was more focused on supersonic planes such as Europe’s 100-seat Concorde. Not fully believing in the passenger potential for a whale of a plane, Boeing designed the 747 with a distinctive bubble top for the cockpit so that when used to carry freight, containers could be loaded right up to the nose of the plane. The 747 became the most identifiable plane in the skies, and a symbol of American engineering and manufacturing prowess in the 1970s and 1980s.

But its 4 engines led to the plane’s descent from passenger airline service. Two-engine jets burn less fuel yet grew to closely match the 747’s carrying capacity. United had 374 seats on its recently retired 747s; its 777s carry 366 passengers and burn 25% less fuel. Airbus has also struggled with its 4-engine A380 superjumbo. Over the past 12 years, only 223 A380s have been delivered. No airline other than Emirates has placed an A380 order for over 2 years.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Referring to Figure 2.1 (page 41), where do the 747, 737, and 787 appear on the Product Life Cycle curve?
  2. Has any plane in commercial production survived longer than the 747? Why?
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