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Boeing 747 Tries to Stay Relevant

Stocks in this article: BA DAL UAL

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- Once viewed as the world's premier airplane, the Boeing (BA) 747, after four decades of flying, now fills a very narrow niche.

The 747 has seen its mission shrink as competing aircraft have become available during the past two decades. The Airbus A340 entered service in 1993 and can fly longer trips. The Boeing 777 entered service in 1995 and is more fuel efficient. The A380 entered service in 2007 and carries more passenger.

Boeing introduced the 747 in 1970 and reshaped global aviation. Four decades later, the plane has lost ground to competitors -- perhaps best illustrated by Singapore Airlines' recent announcement that it will make its last 747 flights April 6, after operating the aircraft for 38 years.

In its glory, the 747, the first widebody aircraft, began flying for Pan American World Airways in 1970. Boeing has produced more than 1,400 of them and sold 1,524. Last October, it delivered the first 747-8, the latest model, to Luxembourg's CargoLux. The first passenger version was sold Tuesday to an unidentified VIP customer. Cargo airplanes account for 60 of the 96 orders for the 747-8.

"The 747 has truly become a niche airplane," aviation consultant Scott Hamilton says. "That is part of the progression for an aging airplane. It's still a good cargo airplane."

The 747-8 "was basically a tactical response to the A380," which came to market in 2000, Hamilton says. "Had it been on time, it probably would have been more successful." Instead, the first delivery was two years late.

The 747's decline as a passenger aircraft is perhaps best illustrated by Singapore Airlines' recent announcement that it will make its last 747 flights April 6, after operating the aircraft for 38 years.

For years, Singapore was the world's largest 747 operator, with 37 aircraft flying from the Singapore hub. But Singapore was the launch customer for the A380 and now flies 16 of them. It also operates five A340-500s and 77 Boeing 777s. In other words, all three 747 replacements are in the Singapore fleet.

"The 747 doesn't have range to go from Singapore nonstop to some destinations we serve," Singapore spokesman James Boyd says. That shortcoming made Singapore a leader in operating flights under aviation's "fifth freedom" right, which enables a carrier flying from its home country to a second country to make a passenger stop in a third country.

Singapore's four U.S. destinations provide examples of the shift. On the Singapore-Newark route, the 747 made a fuel stop in Amsterdam. But in 2004 Singapore replaced the 747 with an A340-500 and dropped the stop, because the A340-500 flies nonstop on the 10,381-mile route, the longest in commercial aviation. The aircraft has just 100 seats, all business class.

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