Boeing BBJ 747-8i

The biggest ride in the sky can be yours for a bargain price.

When the first 747 jumbo quad-engine jet took to the sky in 1969, I was in the sixth grade. By the time the last one rolls off Boeing’s Everett, Washington production line next year—nearly 54 years and 1,600 airplanes later—I’ll be on Medicare. My generation grew up with the 747 and then got old with it. It was the first airplane many of us took to Europe or Asia. More than any other aircraft, it democratized the skies, making international travel more available and affordable than ever before. An estimated 3.5 billion people have flown on the 747 and by 2017 the worldwide fleet had logged 42 billion miles. Today, it remains the world’s fastest production airliner. 

Cargo variants continue to serve as invaluable components of the international supply chain. Every night, they pass high over my house, piercing the vacuum of bucolic silence, flying from the heart of the U.S. to Anchorage and then on to China and Japan and back again. 

Since 1989, two 747-200s have served as the symbol of American prestige, carrying the president and flying as Air Force One. Four more less glamorous ones, designated E4-Bs, rotate to shadow the president. These “doomsday airplanes” are equipped to serve as flying command posts in the event of a foreign attack or another catastrophe. With air-to-air refueling, they can stay aloft for a week. 

The latest model of the aircraft, the 747-8, is more than 250 feet long and fully loaded weighs just shy of one million pounds. Two of these are slated to serve as the next-generation Air Force One and are currently undergoing completion and modification at Boeing’s San Antonio facility. They are likely to fly the president until at least 2060 and by then could well be the last 747s in the air. 

The reason? Four engines are more expensive to run than two and it takes a lot longer to turn an airplane between flights that carry 400 to 800 passengers as opposed to ones that haul 250 to 300. Aircraft sitting on the ground don’t make money. Cognizant of this, airlines have been parking, scrapping, and sawing up 747s as fast as they can, replacing them with long-range, wide-body twin jets such as the Boeing 777 and 787 and Airbus A330 and A350. The pandemic only sped up the process. Of the 440 or so 747s still flying, fewer than 40 are in airline service. The remainder earn their keep flying freight. 

Boeing had hoped to keep the 747 going a while longer. In 2005 it announced plans for the airplane that would become the 747-8. It was a tepid answer to Airbus’s behemoth A380 double-deck quad jet—itself a $30 billion commercial development pyre, albeit one that was substantially financed by the European Union in one form or another. But then Airbus pulled the plug on it, ending production this year after a mere 251 deliveries that began in 2007. Even at the retail price of $445 million a copy, Airbus still couldn’t make money on it. And, like the 747, it is already being scrapped for parts by some airlines. 

I was inside Boeing’s massive Everett hangar—all 472,370,319 cubic feet of it, 98.7 acres under roof—when the 747-8 had its public reveal in 2011. The theatrical production was replete with a smoke machine, live music, scores of dignitaries, and plenty of marketing hyperbole. The airplane was painted in white and orange, the latter a nod to potential Asian customers who believe the color represents good fortune. 

It didn’t. 

In total, Boeing bagged a mere 155 orders for the 747-8, and more than two-thirds of those were for the cargo-only variant. Airlines and VIP customers claimed the rest. Those sold as dedicated Boeing Business Jets amounted to a scant eight. (The new Air Force Ones were originally destined for a Russian airline that defaulted on the deliveries and are being repurposed.) 

Completion centers offered grand designs for those VIP and head-of-state customers that could easily propel the finished price to two-thirds of a billion dollars per airplane. Outfitting a 747-8 routinely took 36 months after the aircraft left Everett sans paint and interior. In VIP configuration it can carry 100 passengers 9,260 nautical miles nonstop. That’s 22 hours in the air, long enough to exhaust the duty times of two flight crews and require a third. The aircraft offers a spacious 4,786-square-foot, 20-foot-wide cabin, a cruising speed of Mach 0.86, and a dash speed of Mach 0.92 or 533 knots/614 mph. Often, special equipment is aboard, such as state-of-the-art secure communications and anti-missile defense systems.  

Designers looked at all the 747-8’s interior space and drooled dollar signs, imagining two-story ballrooms, dramatic open lofts, and vaulted and trayed ceilings. There was space for multiple private lounges and dining rooms, enclosed sleeping berths, and crew rest areas. One completion center designed the aircraft to be fitted with elevators that deploy to the tarmac when the aircraft is on the ground and that can move between decks while it is airborne. 

A few VVIP 747-8s were finished to this opulence. The Qatari royal family took two to add into its livery of a dozen converted airliners. But both were placed onto the resale market before long. One airplane had flown only a little over 400 hours. Finding a buyer at market price—around $567 million—for such a flying palace is nearly impossible, so one of the airplanes was gifted to Turkish President Recep Erdogan—the guy who lives in a 3.2-million-square-foot palace styled after a Las Vegas casino. The three-year-old luxury jet was a party favor of sorts, a tangible tribute to Erdogan for helping Qatar in its trade spat with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Lufthansa, the largest fleet operator of passenger 747-8s, the 747-8i, has already parked several of its -8s. It’s only a matter of time before these airplanes hit the market—at highly negotiable prices. 

The Boeing 747’s decline offers a rare market opportunity for those who truly believe bigger is better—or maybe just want to take social distancing to extremes. Today, you can pick up a copy of the 747-8’s progenitor, the 747-400, for well below $10 million. That leaves a lot of spare change for outfitting—and fuel. Filling a 747 requires more than 60,000 gallons of jet-A. 

Granted, the 747-400 is 16 percent less fuel-efficient and 30 percent noisier than the 747-8, but you can’t argue with the price delta. Whichever model you choose, there likely will never be a private aircraft as large as a VIP-outfitted 747 ever again. Get yours before they’re gone. 

Boeing BBJ 747-8i VIP at a Glance

Price new: $378 million, plus interior

Price used: highly negotiable

Range: 9,260 nm (varies with the number of auxiliary tanks installed) 

Maximum altitude: 43,100 ft 

Cruising speed: 490 kt 

Engines: 4 GE GEnx-2B67 turbofans, 66,500 pounds of thrust each

Crew: 2–6 pilots, typically 10–20 cabin attendants 

Passengers: 100 (typical)

Main cabin: 20 feet wide, 13 ft high, 185 ft long

Baggage: 6,345 cu ft