Commercial airlines have all but abandoned the Boeing 747, along with similar jumbo jets, as carriers continue to downsize their respective fleets due to the overwhelming domino effect of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The idea of needing a supersize aircraft when a lack of demand for travel has decreased by more than 90 percent has suddenly become a moot point in the last two months, with routes trimmed or “circled” and nearly 17,000 of planes sitting parked and unused across the country.
But the beloved 747 hasn’t gone away and is actually finding new life—as a cargo transport.
In a story prepared by CNN Travel, the 747F—as in freighter—is up and running and transporting goods around the world.
“When it comes to this pandemic, seeing a 747 Freighter land at an airport is like in an old western, when the cavalry rides in to help the people in distress,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “The 747 is definitely playing a hero’s role in moving essential cargo around the world in this crisis.”
Older versions of the four-engine 747 were already facing replacement by more efficient, smaller and newer two-engine wide-bodies from Boeing and Airbus. Airlines including Lufthansa and KLM have accelerated the retirement of their vintage 747s, a couple of years sooner than originally planned.
Just two passenger 747s were found to be roaming the skies during the third week in April, CNN found, out of a small group of 16 planes. Now, instead of a few thousand pounds of cargo underneath a few hundred passenger seats, the 747 is flying no people and about 300,000 pounds of goods and supplies.
“Air cargo solutions have never been more important than they are now to global health services. Currently, our international teams dispatch multiple flights daily to ensure that vital medical supplies protect those in need,” Tatyana Arslanova, executive operating officer for AirBridgeCargo, told CNN. “[The 747-8F’s] three compartments can have different temperature settings from 4 degrees Celsius to 29 degrees (39 F to 84 F), giving us extra opportunities to transport perishable cargo, such as temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and life-saving medical equipment. It’s a gift that I can give back”
There are 286 747 Freighters of different models in service, making up about a quarter of the 1,152-aircraft fleet of wide-body, main-deck cargo planes, according to Cirium.
“You know that you’re carrying lifesaving equipment down below, and you know it’s going to make a difference to those who need it on the front lines. It’s very humbling, and it’s not something that I thought about when I started my aviation career 30 years ago. But now, I feel that it’s a gift that I can give back, in a time of crisis,” said Captain Kelly Lepley in an interview with CNN Travel.
“We knew it would play a role in connecting the world 50 years later. We wouldn’t have known that we would have this epic pandemic that would ground so much of the world, and affect almost every country,” said Harteveldt. “I’m sure there are people who worked on the project at Boeing who are not at all surprised that the 747 is a knight in shining armor. The plane has shown repeatedly in its history that, when the chips are down, the 747 can be counted on to come to the rescue.”
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