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All hail the 747, about to be born anew. And don't you dare call it humpbacked!

Published December 2, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

"Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems," writes author and critic Paul Goldberger in a recent issue of the New Yorker. "How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky -- the top and the bottom, in other words." I like to think of a jetliner as a sideways skyscraper, its beauty made or lost primarily through the shapes of its nose and tail.

Back in the late 1960s, the designers at Boeing faced a serious challenge: how to cap off a gigantic, double-decked aircraft elegantly at both ends? That aircraft was the 747, a plane of such radical concept that it would debut at more than twice the tonnage of the largest existing competitor and change the dynamics of air travel forever.

What they came up with was, if nothing else, a work of high industrial art. In the rear, the 747's vertical stabilizer was sculpted to a graceful, understated perfection. It lacks the Gothic prowess of predecessor tails, like that of the 727, but for all its square footage -- the fin reaches higher than a five-story building -- it retains a modest and unassuming power. Up front, engineers met the difficulty of blending in the plane's distinctive upper deck. The 747 is often, and quite unfairly, described as "bubble-topped" or "humpbacked." Actually, the upstairs annex, while giving the jet its most recognizable feature, rises from the fuselage in a manner that is smoothly integral, tapering forward to a proud and commanding bow, like the stately prow of an ocean liner.

The 747 went on to become the bestselling wide-body jetliner in history, and has remained in production for more than three and a half decades. Of actively manufactured jets of any size, only its little brother, the 737, is of older lineage and has sold more copies. Compiling a list of all the many models of passenger jets flying around the world today, from the antique DC-9 through the most current high-tech marvels, we find about 25 baseline models and dozens of variants. Out of that great cluster of aluminum emerges only one true and enduring icon: the Boeing 747. Since the retirement of the Concorde, the 747 stands alone as civil aviation's signature product.

The latest incarnations of the highly popular 737, it warrants mention, bear only limited resemblance to the prototype. The 747, by contrast, in any of its manifestations, from the original -100 through the -400 freighter, retains nearly all the pith and sleekness of its original silhouette, the most serious revisions being an addition of winglets and a lengthening of the upper deck. No other plane is so eminently and instantly distinguishable.

Yet in spite of its magnificence and commercial success, rumors have come and gone insisting that the 747's production run would soon be over. Several years have passed since the last North American airline ordered a passenger-carrying version of the plane, and all around the world the trend has been toward leaner machines like the 767 and A330. Smaller, with half as many engines and remarkably fuel-efficient, these planes helped foster the fragmentation of transoceanic flying that was once the venerable jumbo's dominion. The success of Boeing's own 777 made the 747's prospects for a fourth or fifth decade appear bleak. As of last summer, Boeing's order book recorded a mere 28 747s awaiting construction, versus more than a thousand sibling 737s, 777s and soon-to-come 787 Dreamliners.

The market for an ultra-high-capacity aircraft was and remains out there, albeit in lesser numbers than in times past, and mostly in Asia. For a long time, Boeing fiddled and faddled with the idea of overhauling the 747 to fill this niche, repeatedly deciding to hold off. In the meantime came the decision by Airbus to build its own four-engine giant, the A380. The big new 'Bus is effectively a slightly larger 747, brimming with all the latest gadgetry and the lowest seat-mile operating costs in history. Could there possibly be room for two ultra-high-capacity airliners?

Boeing, at long last, seems to think so. No sooner had the turbines stopped spinning on that record-shattering 777 in early November than the manufacturer announced what it should have announced several years ago -- that it would go ahead and build an advanced 747, designated the 747-8.

I couldn't be happier to bring you this news, though you'll have to accept my excitement as that of a sentimental enthusiast and not necessarily an industry analyst. It's nice to know the A380 won't be the only mega-wide-body jet flying in the decades ahead. Not because it's a substandard airplane from a technology point of view, which it certainly is not, but because -- and my disappointment won't come as news to regular readers of this column -- it's a shamelessly unattractive one.

"Air does not yield to style" is a quip once attributed to an Airbus aerodynamicist. True to his word, the company has reached the summit of ignominy with the A380 -- a colossal technological marvel and possibly the ugliest commercial jet ever made. To build it, designers faced the same predicament dealt with by Boeing all those years ago, and seem to have ignored it completely. With its abruptly sloping forehead, the A380 resembles a huge steroidal porpoise -- an A340 with a bad case of elephantiasis. The tail? Well, it's just a tail.

There's a curious pathology here: Aside from the 747, many in the Boeing line, new and old alike, have been good-looking machines. By contrast, the Airbus consortium has built exactly one head turner -- the svelte A340 -- in 30-plus years of plane making. We expect more from the Europeans, allegedly such arbiters of good taste, who seem to have left their imaginations in the Concorde wind tunnels.

Like those before it, the latest 747 will, on the outside, remain true to the original profile, the most obvious changes being a state-of-the-art airfoil and a set of unusual, fetchingly scalloped engine nacelles (it's a noise reduction thing).

Admittedly this is all so much gibberish to the majority of passengers -- not to mention executives holding the purse strings at the airlines -- who aren't weepy romantics when it comes to which aircraft they're riding to London or Singapore. To many, the only glimpse of their plane's exterior is a few square feet at that entryway umbilicus where the boarding door meets the jetway. So, more critically, what does a new 747 mean in the battle with archrival Airbus? If anything, the presence of a revamped 747 wedges the A380 into a tighter competitive corner than it already was in. Exactly how snug that corner is remains to be seen, though I have my suspicions. Despite my enmity toward its overpumped physique, I was guardedly optimistic about the A380's future. Until the Boeing announcement.

With a minor fuselage extension of about 12 feet (total length is now a bit over 223 feet), the 747-8 will feature limited room for additional seating. The point is not to increase capacity as much as to upgrade the plane's systems and capabilities to modern standards, drawing from the successful architecture of the 777 and also from ideas previously researched for the 787. The -400, currently the 747's most advanced variant, was developed more than two decades ago. (Yours truly, incidentally, was a passenger on the first scheduled international departure of a 747-400: Northwest Airlines flight 17, from New York to Tokyo on June 1, 1989. I still have one of the wooden sake cups that were handed out to customers.) With an extra 35 or so seats, the -8 will occupy a slot somewhere between the 777 and the A380 -- precisely where the 747-400 sits today.

In this regard, the -8 will be less of a direct rival to the A380 than a replacement option for 747s now in service. What should work to Boeing's advantage is a relatively seamless transition, for airlines, from older 747s to this one. For carriers on the fence about the A380, the Boeing may prove an easier swallow than taking on a new and altogether unproven model -- as might the promise of a 12 percent fuel efficiency advantage, and a whopping 22 percent lower trip cost, over the similar-size Airbus. As for the investment gamble Boeing itself has taken, estimated at around $4 billion, it is far below what Airbus has spent to devise its own double-decker behemoth from scratch.

Roughly a thousand 747s are currently flying around the globe -- more than any other jetliner save the 737, the A320 and the DC-9/MD-80 series. Many people are surprised to learn that there are more airworthy 747s than either 757s or 767s. (Neither the 757 nor the DC-9/MD-80 is still in production.) Boeing predicts a need for approximately 900 airplanes in the 747's class over the next 20 years. Note also Boeing's emphasis on a freighter option for the 747-8. Of late, most 747 sales have been as cargo haulers, and the plane's long history as an outstanding freighter (anyone remember the days of Flying Tigers or Seaboard World?) should provide a certain profit buffer should sales of the passenger versions falter. It's perhaps significant that the launch customers for the 747-8 program are Japan's Nippon Cargo Airlines (an All Nippon Airways affiliate) and Luxembourg's Cargolux (a longtime 747 operator), with commitments for 34 ships.

For now, and maybe permanently, the plane is called the 747-8. This designator is something of a non sequitur for Boeing, which has gone to great lengths to retain its orderly numbering system. Not only has the familiar 7-dash-7 sequence remained intact, but the variant suffixes have too. The 737, for instance, progressed from the 737-100 through the 737-900 without a skip. The 747 got a bit weird in the early '70s with the short-bodied SP, but in the minds of purists, next in line should be the -500. The choice of -8, however, is wily and significant in two ways. It's a pitch to the Asian market, where eight is considered a fortuitous number, and it's a subtle jab at the Airbus A380.

A not-so-subtle jab are the -8's specs. Price and performance, not nomenclature, will bring in the orders, and a look at the plane's numbers, from acquisition costs through operating data, should have the folks in Toulouse sweating profusely.

After five straight years of second-place sales, Boeing has once again gained the upper hand against Airbus. The 737 is doing well, and pre-production orders of the 787 are solidly outscoring those of the derivative A350. Now this. The modest makeover of a 35-year-old bird could bring dividends for decades to come.

I'd go so far as to call the A380 a white elephant, but elephants, for all their girth and heft, are at least kind of cool looking.

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Boeing 747 trivia and infamy:

  • The 747 was first put into service by Pan American World Airways in January 1970, on the New York-London route.

  • The first 747 to crash was a Lufthansa plane in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1974. The last was an African-registered freighter that went down in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2004.

  • The airplane that completed the maiden Pan Am voyage to London was named the Clipper Victor. Seven years later, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, this very aircraft was destroyed in a takeoff collision with another 747. Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed in what remains the worst disaster in aviation history.

  • On older 747s, the main and upper decks were connected by a spiral staircase.

  • In 1991, as part of an airlift of Ethiopian Jews called Operation Solomon, an El Al 747 transported a record 1,087 passengers from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv.

  • Although maximum-density seating allows for as many as 580 very uncomfortable riders, typical three-class layouts range from 350 to 450. At Japan's All Nippon Airways, a token number of 747s are modified for short-haul operations, each with a knee-breaking 569 seats. (Similarly, you can expect the A380 to feature those much-hyped "800 or more passengers" only in very select markets, if at all. With an emphasis on premium cabin comforts, some A380s will contain fewer seats than many 747s.)

  • Airlines with the most 747s: Japan Airlines (72), Air France (60), British Airways (58), Singapore Airlines (43).

  • Of all U.S. legacy airlines, past and present -- American, America West, Braniff, Continental, Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Pan Am, TWA, United and US Airways -- only one has never had a 747 in its fleet: US Airways. Today, the last holdouts are Northwest and United, with about 35 examples each. Atlas Air, UPS, Polar Air Cargo and something called Kalitta Air -- all freighters -- also use 747s.

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    GO-AROUNDS (formerly "Missed Approaches")

    Re: mileage records

    Dear Patrick Smith: I anticipate you'll receive hundreds of similar corrections, but your list of the longest scheduled nonstop flights seems to have omitted a few obvious candidates, including a flight I have taken many times, San Francisco-Hong Kong, at 6,927 miles.

    -- Dan Kutten

    Author's reply: Several e-mails like this one were received, all citing statute rather than nautical miles. If you're using the Great Circle Mapper, be careful to select nautical miles in the "path distance" window. The list of the 10 longest flights is correct as it appears.

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  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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