My very first international flight was on a Jumbo Jet, the Pan Am Clipper Service from Bombay to Frankfurt. My very last international flight was also on a Jumbo Jet, the Thai Airways night service from Bangkok to Delhi. The 31 years that separated the two was witness to the rise and demise of the B 747, a story that began in the early days of the 1970s.
In case you are wondering otherwise, this piece is actually a perspective of not just a single product brand but a fascinating industry and its loyal adherence to customer centricity. It is especially relevant today because in the wake of the Covid destruction, many airlines, including British Airways, are finally retiring this iconic craft. The reason for its termination is also strangely the reason for its installation, which is indeed the number of passengers it can profitably carry. But more importantly, it is a tale of evolving customer demand and the response in terms of fundamental product development not just the shallow climes of service experience.
When the Boeing 747 was launched, the jet age was truly established, courtesy the pioneering efforts of the De Havilland Comet and the business efficacy of the Boeing 707. The aviation industry operated splendidly on the hub and spoke concept, as an integrated response to a challenge of integration. Very few airports were geared towards mass immigration and thus Frankfurt, Schiphol, Heathrow, Dubai, Changi and JFK became the springboards for further destinations and the Jumbo Jet was the perfect adhesive. It ferried cohorts of travellers to such noble gateways and their final ports of call were served by the single aisle followers, whether jet or turboprop. In all this, the beauty was the customer centricity as the entire industry was engineered by the demands of the paying customers, or rather the migratory patterns of curious humans.
So this was the golden age of the Boeing 747, from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. The competition was earnest but feeble led by the commendable DC 10, the stylish Lockheed Tristar and lest we forget the guzzling Soviet clones. But none could match the efficiency and drama of the Jumbo Jet and the emotional aura was certainly a significant draw. In the two-storeyed construction lay stature that was unmatched and the bellowing roars of the engines reinforced the arrogance of flight. It could have been considered a monstrosity in construction but in fact it was an inspired scripting of elegance where the power was cloaked lovingly in sustainable design. Unlike say the Concorde, whose remarkable performance was unworthy of the sensitive planet but that is a story of yet another day.
But things started to change in the mid-1990s and this resulted in yet another significant shift in consumer behaviour and thus the emergence of a brand new segment, the MCLR (Medium Capacity Long Range). As economies developed so did airports and quite suddenly the ‘spoke’ airports of yore, served by smaller engines, graduated to being destinations in their own right. A pattern accentuated by the incompetencies of the glorious hubs which were becoming living nightmares for transit passengers to navigate, with endless walks and laborious processes. So the passenger seeking to travel to Milan, Birmingham, Boston, Almaty or perhaps Phuket was increasingly unwilling to suffer the agony of such transits and in fact, willing to pay a premium for direct connections. This led to the birth of the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A 330 to be succeeded eventually by the B787 and the A 350, empowered with expansive range but with optimised customer cabins, thus making them viable business propositions. While the Airbus A 380 was a logical successor to the 747, its gargantuan dimensions made economic viability even more susceptible as per changing consumer behaviour.
So what exactly were the key drivers behind the changing consumer patterns, apart from the poor hub experiences? For one, the affluence of the world at large. especially the one-time third world, leading to prolificity in overseas travel and thus variety seeking buying behaviour. From the formulaic London-Paris-New York touring patterns, the new global traveller now sought to re-engage her contract with the universe, bolstered considerably by the reopening of the Soviet Bloc. Destinations were emerging daily and aircrafts needed to fly swiftly and efficiently thus making the hub and spoke models archaic, point to point becoming the new buzzword. Quite logically, business travel became even more dynamic and newer trade routes were established courtesy the migration of intellectual capital. The industry at large grew sufficiently to factor multiplier points of connection, which demanded optimisation of passenger capacity and maximisation of range such that efficiency, comfort and profitability were equally serviced. A veritable death sentence for the Jumbo Jet, its age-old prowess to fill the bus becoming a reason to miss the bus.
An inexplicably underrated yet definite quality of the aviation industry is to be relentlessly customer-centric, in terms of product development much before service experience. In a performance curve, way ahead of most other industries that need this dimension most urgently. The Jumbo Jet served its purpose most nobly in an Iron Curtain world which gingerly traversed to glasnost and performed a stellar role in unification of seemingly disparate fellows. But when certain regularity was restored and liberalisation was actionable, its role became rather diminished. The carrier of susceptible masses in a world full of opinionated individuals once the Berlin Wall was affirmatively demolished.
On Amitabh Bachchan, you may well ask why this parallel was categorically drawn. The Jumbo Jet, like the film icon, was an established pioneer setting benchmarks of influence and impact. Many successors followed suit with much aplomb, incomparable in chutzpah but successful as enterprises, be it movies or flying. Their relevance was to the passage of time but their guru was the timeless monument.
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