Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Downsizing the Skies

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 18, 2018 --  

The age of the jumbo jet is coming to an end. For passengers interested in convenience, it couldn't be soon enough.

The Udvar-Hazy Center sprawls across the south end of Washington's Dulles Airport. Its enormous hangars house the annex of the National Air and Space Museum, its exhibits spanning from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. The museum is not just about aircraft — it's also a monument to gigantism. From the tiny Wright Brothers planes to the enormous space shuttle, the museum shows how aircraft steadily grew to be hulking beasts.

As airplanes grew, airports grew along with them. Dulles Airport that hosts the museum was the largest in the world by land area when completed in 1962. Currently spanning 11,830 acres1, it is nearly half the size of San Francisco.

But aviation's march toward larger planes and bigger airports is beginning to recede. Last month, Delta retired its last Boeing 747 jumbo jet, flying it from Detroit to Seattle to return the aircraft to the place it was made.2 This year United Airlines will also retire the aircraft, and British Airways plans to follow in the next decade.3 While it's not surprising that a nearly 50-year-old aircraft model is being retired, similar headwinds are facing the decade-old Airbus A380, an even larger aircraft that was built to compete with the 747.4

The high costs of operating jumbo-sized aircraft have made them less attractive to carriers compared to their smaller but more fuel-efficient cousins. Stuffing more passengers on the same aircraft mean customers get fewer options on departure times and bigger hassles in case a mechanical failure. Ever try to get an alternate flight before your fellow passengers do? Try doing that when all 500 passengers on a jumbo jet are hustled off the plane at the exact same time. Even if everything goes according to plan, the time to board all these passengers takes much longer than for smaller aircraft. And waiting in the back of a jumbo jet for hundreds of passengers in front of you to empty the overhead compartments can be a daunting experience.

Big airports offer similar disadvantages to big planes. Dulles airport was built to be a replacement for Washington's centrally-located Reagan National airport, but the time and expense of the 28 mile trip to Dulles from downtown was always unattractive. It took draconian restrictions on National Airport — first by banning jet aircraft and later by banning aircraft flying over a certain range, to force long-distance passengers out to Dulles. Despite these restrictions, traffic at Reagan National has grown steadily. In 2015, its passenger count surpassed Dulles for the first time since the 1990s.5 Despite the fact the the much smaller Reagan National predominantly serves much smaller aircraft, it has proven to be a more popular choice for passengers than larger planes at a larger airport.

The trend toward smaller aircraft has been pioneered by low-cost airlines in Europe, Asia and North America. Typically serving smaller airports, these airlines often fly point-to-point rather than servicing enormous hub airports like the legacy carriers. This helps relieve pressure on overcrowded hub airports and saves passengers the hassle of layovers and missed connections. The higher fuel efficiency of the latest generation of smaller aircraft make them better able to compete with larger aircraft as well.

Because point-to-point flights on smaller aircraft are also more convenient, legacy carriers have been forced to compete by offering point-to-point services on smaller aircraft of their own. Hence, downward demand on giant aircraft like the 747 and A380.

These trends are all a good thing for consumers. Smaller aircraft and airports offer greater travel flexibility and convenience. If these trends were taken to their logical extreme, every driveway would be its own airport, and every family would have its own tiny aircraft. While that dream is still a long way off, we'll soon see the hulking behemoths like the 747 and A380 relegated to aerospace museums where they belong.

Related Web Columns:

Denver's Folly
How Not to Build an Airport, December 30, 1997


1. Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, Dulles Airport Overview, As posted, January 16, 2018

2. USA Today, Delta Air Lines Sends off its Boeing 747s With Grand Farewell Tour, December 19, 2017

3. CNBC, Airlines Bid Farewell to the Boeing 747—Take a Look at the Life of the 'Queen of the Skies', December 23, 2017

4. Economist, The Days of the A380 Look Numbered, January 15, 2018

5. Washington Business Journal, DCA Pulls Ahead of Dulles. Here's Why That's Not Necessarily a Good Thing, August 18, 2015