United Airlines final Boeing 747 flight took place on November 7, 2017. I am an aviation geek who has flown over 1.5 million miles on United Airlines. I have always been especially fascinated by the Boeing 747.
Introduced in 1969 it was by far the largest airliner in the world. The 747 held this title for over 35 years. It was a multi-story 4 engine beast of an airplane. I fully understand the principle behind powered air flight, yet it is amazing to me every time I see a 747 take-off or land. It seems unnatural for so much metal to be in the air.
The 747 didn’t make short domestic flights, the airplane was usually headed to an exotic destination in a faraway land. This airplane came on the scene when air travel was still an exciting and enjoyable experience. Because of its tremendous range, the airplane opened quick travel to many remote places. In essence, the Boeing 747 made the world a smaller place.
It is hard to imagine the need to retire such a cool airplane. What happened to the 747 that makes it financially unfeasible in today’s aviation world? To begin with, the airplane is almost 40 years old. Despite numerous technology updates, the 4-engine behemoth is not fuel efficient compared to the modern twin-engine varieties. Long haul twin-engine airplanes have met and even exceeded the range of the 747. While these new airplanes don’t hold as many passengers as the 747, they are close enough for today’s aviation industry economics.
The 747 has a unique shape. Only the first part of the airplane is 2 stories. The 747’s unique capabilities have enabled it to fill several special roles. The 747 served as a carrier for the Space Shuttle.
The 747 also found duty as Air Force One.
I first flew on a 747 in 1987 from Frankfurt to Atlanta. I have since flown on this airplane countless times. Each flight was special as the 747 was the largest airplane in the sky and I was going someplace far away.
What can we take away from United’s retirement of the venerable Boeing 747? First, there is a season for everything. As amazing as the 747 is, its time has come and gone. We will have the memories of this airplane and the adventurous travel it represented. Many years ago, I had a friend tell me the value of memories. At the time I was not interested in memories, but I never forgot what she told me. I now understand the importance of memories. Nothing last forever but our memories help us relive some of the awesome times in our lives. The cool thing about memories is, no one can take them away.
The second key learning is to recognize when to let go of a successful product or technology and move on to the next big thing. See above for “nothing lasts forever.” For a business, this process is very hard to implement. Some examples of hanging on too long are Kodak with film, Hewlett Packard with ink and Blockbuster with videos. We may be seeing this same phenomenon soon with Apple and the iPhone. While hard to imagine, even Google with search will be replaced someday. Every product has a life cycle. The Boeing 747 was fortunate that is life cycle has lasted over 35 years. Entire companies have been destroyed due to the inability to recognize key technology and product transitions. The problem is fully explored in Clayton Christianson’s book The Innovators Dilemma.
Goodbye United Boeing 747, you changed the world for the better. I will always remember the joy and excitement you brought to air travel. Now it is time to book my next trip on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner!
Make the most of this day!