Farewell to the Boeing 747, 'The Queen of the Skies.' All hail lean jets

Key Points
  • Boeing said it has been in deal talks with Brazilian regional-jet maker Embraer.
  • Airlines have shied away from jumbo jets in favor of smaller, fuel-efficient jets.
  • Smaller jets are easier to fill and cheaper to operate than larger planes.
Embraer planes
Source: Embraer

Boeing's most iconic jet, the 747, has all but disappeared from U.S. fleets.

Delta Air Lines this month marked the retirement of the so-called Queen of the Skies from its fleet with a six-city farewell tour, joining United Airlines in putting the jet with the humped fuselage out to pasture.

Now Boeing is thinking small. The aerospace giant has been in deal talks with Brazil's Embraer, the maker of smaller regional jets, the companies said this week.

Brazil's government is opposed to an outright takeover of Embraer by Boeing. President Michel Temer said Friday that he opposed Boeing's control of Embraer but that he'd be open to a capital injection into the company.

Why small planes?

Embraer is known for its regional jets that seat fewer than 130 passengers.

Production values of regional aircraft topped $7.1 billion this year and Embraer accounted for more than 45 percent of that, according to aerospace analysis firm Teal Group. Embraer's share is on track to top 56 percent by 2020, Teal Group projected.

"It's a hole in [Boeing's] product portfolio," said Jeff Windau, an industrials analyst at Edward Jones. "They've been focused on larger jets and one of their large competitors, Airbus, is expanding in that direction."

European aerospace giant Airbus is Boeing's archrival. The two companies compete on almost every type of aircraft, from single-aisle jets to widebody aircraft that can fit close to 400 passengers.

Airbus manufacturers the world's biggest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, a four-engine monster that can fit up to 800 people. That's a lot of arm rests to protect.

But the Toulouse-based Airbus is indeed delving into the small-jet market. In October, it swooped in to grab a majority stake in the struggling C Series program of Canada's Bombardier.

Delta agreed to buy at least 75 of the sleek, some 100-seat Bombardier jets last year. Boeing complained Bombardier dumped the planes below cost and used government subsidies. So far the Trump administration has agreed, slapping duties of nearly 300 percent on the jets. Delta hasn't taken delivery of the planes, but such tariffs would render them unaffordable.

Boeing argued before the U.S. International Trade Commission this week that Bombardier's sales practices hurt demand for its best-selling 737s. A final ruling is due by February.

Delta's CEO Ed Bastian has expressed confusion over Boeing's complaint because the U.S. company doesn't offer a small, competitor aircraft to the Bombardier C Series jets. Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, said now that the Embraer talks have been brought to light, the suit makes sense.

"The trade complaint would suddenly be rational," he said, because Boeing would be sensitive about small-jet sales in the U.S.

Jumbo jets fly off into the sunset

Boeing's 747, which first took to the skies in early 1969 and could fit roughly 500 people, was a dazzling sight in its heyday, featuring opulent first-class lounges and leg room that would make any coach-class frequent flier drool.

The world's largest commercial jetliner, the Boeing 747 makes its first takeoff on February 9th, 1969. The 231 ft. jet used abut 4500 feet of runway and became airborne at a speed of about 170 MPH. The 747 cut its maiden flight short by about an hour due to some minor problem when the wing flaps were lowered to a 30 degree angle.
Bettman Collection | Getty Images

But airlines have eschewed the plane in favor of leaner two-engine jets that guzzle less fuel than their four-engine counterparts and can fly enormous distances. United is offering a nearly 18-hour flight from Houston to Singapore aboard the Boeing 787, known as the Dreamliner.

Across the pond, British Airways announced plans this fall to phase the 747-400s out of its fleet by the early 2020s.

Airlines have also turned their backs on the Airbus A380 in favor of smaller, more fuel efficient competitors.

Bigger is not better

Big global airlines have complex route networks, and regional jets like Embraer's are easier to fill than some Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s for short routes, another reason Boeing may want them in its stable.

A Boeing-Embraer tie-up may give the Chicago giant a foothold to sell small regional jets in China, where the state-run Commercial Aircraft Corp of China is testing locally-built passenger planes, Edward Jones' Windau said.

But larger jets take a backseat to single-aisle jets as both Airbus and Boeing improve their range. For example, Norwegian Air Shuttle flies Boeing 737s across the Atlantic. Southwest plans to use its new 737 MAX planes to fly from the West Coast to Hawaii.

The bad news for passengers is that despite all these feats of engineering, more legroom in coach is not one of them.