Issue 250: 2020 10 08: The Price of Renewal

08 October 2020

The Price of Renewal

Retiring the 747.

By John Watson

If you are looking for a symbol for the effect of the Covid virus, you could do worse than take the fate of the Boeing 747.  The giant aircraft, originally built by Boeing for Pan Am, was introduced almost exactly 50 years ago in 1970 and revolutionised jet travel.  Much bigger than its forerunners, the plane reduced the cost of flying by around 30% and so made long distance travel far more affordable for the public at large.  Want to go to visit the Australian rellies?  Want to see the skyscrapers of New York?  What about a nice trip to the far east?  The 747 was at your service and (for those who believe that travel enlarges the mind, reduces bigotry and is generally a good thing) it was at the service of civilisation too, as well as providing a delightful club-like ambiance on its upper deck for the discerning business class traveller.

What not to like, you might ask?  The 747 with gradual adaptions became the workhorse of long distance aviation and airline after airline brought it into service.  Surely this should be reflected by a series of anniversary parties with lotteries for free flights, speeches by dignitaries and the popping of champagne corks?  Alas, not so.  Instead we see pictures of the giant airliners being parked in the American desert to await recycling into tin cans, as British Airways and other carriers declare that they are scrapping their 747 fleets because the fall in passengers means they are no longer viable.  Covid has claimed another victim, not of course on the same scale as the million or so human casualties, but real enough nonetheless.  Pilots near tears, crews being given parts as souvenirs, a great technical achievement is dying and for those who discuss it on our televisions there is no doubt about the sense of loss.

And loss there is.  When you buy or lease an aeroplane you compare the money you will make from it against the costs you will incur.  The difference is your profit and if you make more money from the plane that profit is increased.  Make less and the profit is reduced or may even turn into a loss.  Every time a plane is removed from service earlier than expected, someone, perhaps the original purchaser or lessee or perhaps a third world airline which bought it second hand, loses money.  Each new 747 which will no longer be manufactured represents a loss to Boeing or to some wretched purchaser which was already contracted to take it.  What a pile of broken hopes and dreams that aircraft graveyard in the desert represents.

photo Alan Wilson

But that isn’t quite the whole story.  BA was already due to retire its fleet of 747s by 2024 because they were getting old, needed frequent maintenance and with four, fuel-guzzling engines were far from carbon efficient.  The early scrapping of the fleet means that as the market recovers they will be using planes which are more up-to-date and economical.  Other major airlines are taking the same view, and in case you think that this merely represents the passing of the existing fleet to secondary operators, the gradually accumulating store of scrapped planes standing in the desert awaiting demolition demonstrates that the change is more fundamental than that.

For those involved in aviation, as in many other industries besides, the collapse of demand resulting from the pandemic is an unimaginable disaster.  There will be losses, business failures, redundancies and all the personal pain associated with these things but, for all that, the industry in five years time will be more efficient and using more environmentally friendly planes.  If, as many of us believe, foreign travel is important to the development of civilisation, our descendants, distanced by time from the suffering involved, may look back at 2020 as a year in which important progress was made, rather as we look at the demise of the canals when they were overtaken by the railways.  Technology moves with quantum leaps and in the long term the destruction is compensated for by the progress made.

For most of us, as we sit in our homes looking out at the devastation the pandemic has wrought, this seems a cold view.  The fact that the retirement of the 747 represents progress is of little consolation to those whose trade was to fly them and who will lose their jobs.  The owner of the bustling city centre café is not consoled by the likelihood that equivalent cafés will grow up in the suburbs.  And yet on a longer view, renewal and progress always involve destruction.  If you go to the end of the story His Last Bow written by Conan Doyle in 1917, Holmes replies to Watson in the following words:

“There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet.  It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.  But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

He was talking, of course, of the First World War.


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