Nearly six decades ago, hauling cargo was the inspiration for the iconic shape of the Boeing 747. Joe Sutter, the legendary engineer that led Boeing’s design team, remarked that the upper deck sat above the passenger cabin of the airplane because once the world was flying supersonic, his jumbo jet would live on as a freighter.
“It was this anticipated alternate use that made the 747 program economically viable from the company’s point of view,” the late Sutter wrote in his memoir. “The 747 had to be an excellent freighter, not just an excellent passenger plane.”
Boeing on Monday launched its first new airplane in a half decade, transforming its 777X flagship around a post-pandemic era shaped by freight and e-commerce. That followed Airbus’s own November launch of the A350 freighter, marking the shortest duration in which Boeing and Airbus have launched two new directly competing airplanes.
Yet, embedded in the designs of both new super freighters is a reversal of sorts and illustrative of how much the pandemic has shifted the fortunes of twin-aisle passenger aircraft. It is a new willingness on the part of Boeing and Airbus to make significant changes to their passenger planes to create bespoke specifications for the world’s cargo haulers in a bid to reconstitute once-booming production lines.
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