There was a time when the Boeing 747 was the majestic queen of the airways. First flown in 1969, the four-engine giant, known as the Jumbo, entered service with Pan Am. It went on to dominate the Atlantic and Pacific routes, made the venerable DC-8 and Boeing 707 redundant and essentially put ocean travel out of business.
The 747 still flies and remains the most recognizable passenger plane on the planet, with its distinct forward hump, which houses the upper passenger deck. But is becoming a fairly rare sight at airports. Most airlines use two-engine, wide-body jets, which are cheaper to run.
Boeing, however, is a master at squeezing life out of old products and the 747, in somewhat new guise, is back. The new version is called the 747-8 Intercontinental and it made its international debut on Sunday at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport, just north of the city. The plane, with "experimental" still painted over the exit doors, was painted in striking red and white, with grey stripes.
Boeing cleverly rolled out the plane on the day before the official start of the air show, all the better to ensure maximum press exposure; there was virtually no over media event that day.
The dimensions of the 747-8 are impressive. The only bigger passenger jet is the Airbus A380, and not by much. The new Boeing is 76.4 metres longer -- 6 metres longer than its predecessor, the Boeing 747-400. It can carry 467 passengers, compared to 416 for the previous version, and, equipped with the latest General Electric motors, has a formidable range of 14,800 kms. The A380 has 525 seats.
Until a few months ago, there was some doubt the 747-8 would even make it to the air show. The project suffered several delays, in part because of the discovery of low-frequency vibrations under certain flight conditions. The delays annoyed customers, all the more so because the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Boeing's star project, was also way behind schedule. In the third quarter of 2009, Boeing took a US$1-billion charge related to the new 747.
Its first flight was in March and the worst seems to be over. Boeing has tallied 74 firm orders for the freighter version and expects more, in part because the Airbus A380, its main competitor, does not offer a freighter model. The passenger version of the 747-8 has 33 sales. Korean Air and Lufthansa are its main buyers.
There is also a mystery buyer of the new Boeing, rumoured to be a fabulously wealthy Arab sheik or Russian oligarch, who ordered one as a private jet.
The list price of the 747-8 is US$317.8-million (though discounts of 30 per cent or more are often available).
The owner of the private 747 is thought to have spent US$100-million just outfitting the interior with gold faucets, "disco wave" lighting for in-flight parties, soothing mood lighting to relax you during turbulence, lavish bedrooms and other baubles and tweaks.
Mere mortals could not afford 5 minutes worth of gas for one of these planes. There is, however, a bar on board the new 747-8. Enjoy your flight with several hundred of your new best friends.