By Charlotte Seet
Opinion: Is This The End For Jumbo Jets?
Taking a flight down memory lane to the aviation market in the 1960s and all the way till the early 2000s, airlines then needed bigger aircraft capacity to ferry as many passengers as possible for a variety of reasons that still exists today – from weeding out the competition to maximizing whatever airport slots these airlines had.
When there’s a need, there is an idea bound to arise allowing for the concept of “jumbo” jets to come about. Fast forward to today, whenever one thinks of the term “jumbo” jets, quite a limited number of aircraft types come to mind – from the iconic “Queen of the Skies” Boeing 747 line to the “Superjumbo” Airbus A380 line.
The era of the “jumbo” jets revolutionized the aviation industry to grow beyond what was then thought to be possible. Their enormous sizes changed the way manufacturers approached aircraft engineering and aerodynamic designing and allowed for airlines to be creative in-cabin retrofitting to excel in this ever-competitive world. For passengers, it wasn’t just the amazement of seeing giant chunks of metal flying on four engines – but also the in-awe feeling of arriving in bigger airports and the ability to fly around the world in shorter durations and cheaper prices.
Given how well-loved these “jumbo jets” were and still are, several airlines still use them as their flagship aircraft. Even in the current pandemic era whereby the majority of these “jumbo” jets have since been retired or remain in storage, the likes of Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and Qantas still consider the A380 as their flagship aircraft. And as for the 747, Lufthansa still loyally chooses the 747-8 as its flagship.
And as the years went on, cargo numbers boomed alongside passengers, and these “jumbo” jets – more specifically the Boeing 747 – were versatile enough to change the face of air cargo as well. Changing the game with nose-loading abilities and a full deck of cargo, the 747 remains quite the icon in the air cargo industry as well. Although the Airbus A380 never quite made this milestone, it’s not to say that Airbus isn’t still trying to design one in the books.
They say that all good things must come to an end, and that’s exactly what’s happened to these “jumbo” jets as this very year saw the production line of both the A380 and the B747 halting completely. And while the B747s are still being produced for the next couple of years to fulfill orders, the last A380 has already been delivered, marking the interrupted end to perhaps one of the shortest productions for a commercial aircraft.
As with everything in life, the end of the line for these “jumbo” jets was a definite in the distant future, but it was also without a doubt that the pandemic sped things up immensely. The massive jets proved to be too expensive to operate with little-to-no passenger demand, and it certainly didn’t help when paired with how airlines were consistently bleeding money. From being money-makers to money-bleeders, these “jumbo” jets ended up being stored away for the longest time or sent for early retirement.
One can certainly imagine that when news of the return of these “jumbo” jets started coming in, it certainly made me extremely happy because their long-term storage and retirement felt like it came too soon. Still, it didn’t alleviate the sadness knowing that although they were returning, their time in the skies won’t be for very long either.
But is the pandemic truly all to blame for such an end? I would say not, and if anything besides speeding up the end, the pandemic ironically opened the eyes of the aviation industry on the overdue importance of becoming cleaner and greener. It’s honestly no big secret that aviation contributes massively to global warming, but yet it is still quite the necessity for globalization to occur. This means that a compromise is needed for airlines to not only do their part for the environment but also to simply do their job, ferrying passengers and cargo across the globe.
The passenger demand – although slowed down by the pandemic – is still on track to keep growing in the years to come with countries still depending on tourism to survive, and the demand for air cargo isn’t expected to settle down anytime soon either. And although these “jumbo” jets carry the capacity to meet demand, they don’t quite cut it both environmentally and financially. This is why lately, airlines have been shifting their focus to the next-generation widebody families such as the Airbus A350s and the Boeing 787 Dreamliners – whereby the compromise is on passenger capacity, but the advantage is on fuel efficiency and overall cost savings – the main big win for airlines right now as they hone in on carbon neutrality.
It’s not just for commercial aviation, but over in the air cargo industry, the focus seems to be on becoming cleaner as well. Despite its long-lasting legacy as a freighter, the B747F is slowly, but surely fading away too with even cargo-dedicated airlines such as UPS ordering up more B767Fs instead due to the aircraft’s versatility and fuel efficiency as compared to the “jumbo” freighter.
And whilst the freighter version of the A380 never materialized, but the A350F has already made it out of the drawing board and has been receiving numerous orders – another clear indicator of how airlines are changing their perspective for their fleets. Priorities have somewhat changed for the aviation industry as it’s no longer about being able to ferry more load in a single flight, but more so on becoming cleaner every flight.
With this ironic shift in focus for the aviation world, paired with the unforeseen circumstances brought by the pandemic, the era of the “jumbo” jets had no choice but to come to quite an unwilling end. This begs the question, is the concept of “jumbo” jets facing extinction, or a possible look at renewal in the future?
I’d say it’s a mix of yes and no, although the very-near future will bring about the long-awaited Boeing 777X which many have dubbed as the “Mini-Jumbo”, the 777x doesn’t quite have the iconic dual-leveled cabins and quad-engines as its predecessors. Perhaps it’s an indication that whilst dual-leveled cabins are probably not coming back anytime soon, but the new generation of “jumbo” jets will be along the lines of being designed to be longer and not taller.