Production of the Airbus A380 has already ceased, and Boeing 747 production terminated in December, 2022. But keep in mind that replacement doesn’t mean that these two giants will disappear from the skies overnight. Quoting Douglas Mac Arthur, like old soldiers, they will slowly fade away over the next two decades.
From 2023 onward, only twin-engine commercial airliners will be in production. The Boeing 747 has provided yeoman service as the majestic “Queen of the Skies” since 1969, but demand for the modernized B747–8 series has been disappointing, with fewer than 50 passenger and slightly more than 100 cargo versions being sold. The twin engine B777–8/9 series has now grown to “fit the shoes” of the B747, and can do the same job on two immensely powerful (and very reliable) engines. Boeing and Airbus are aware that it is counterproductive for a manufacturer to compete with itself, and see the handwriting on the wall, as the demand for four-engine airliners has all but disappeared.
This is because, for both “legacy” four engine airliners, there are more cost-efficient alternatives. The main drivers are economics and engine technology, as a new generation of highly efficient engines, like the GE9X-105B1A, capable of producing over 100,000+ lb. of thrust is now available. Aircraft that are somewhat lighter (making use of composites), and thus more economical to operate seem to be the current trend.
Some airlines that operated the A380 are switching to the A350 series, and the B777–8 and -9 are currently undergoing certification, with projected entry into service in 2025. The B777–9 is actually slightly larger than the 747–8. The proposed B777–10X would accommodate almost as many passengers as the A380, but at a much lower operating cost.
On the other hand, we should still expect to see Boeing 747s at airports for some time to come, but mostly at cargo terminals. The B747 was originally designed as a cargo aircraft for the US Air Force but lost the competition to the Lockheed C-5A. Thus the B747 is well suited to carry cargo (some have the capability for loading outsize cargo through a ramp in the nose). There will definitely be a freighter conversion aftermarket for the B747–8i passenger liner, as there was in the case of the more numerous 747–400 series.
Accordingly, the Boeing 747 will continue to soldier on in the future as a freighter, as there remains widespread maintenance and logistical support. Thus it will be a while before it vanishes from our skies.
I cannot, however, forecast the future of the A380 with confidence. As a huge aircraft, it has potential for cargo conversion, but there never was an A380-F actually built by Airbus, though this version was on the drawing board, and Fed X was at one time interested in it. Conversions to cargo configuration are indeed possible, but such a conversion may prove to be very expensive, and competition with the cargo-carrying B747s currently being bought and sold on the second-hand market at lower prices could be problematic. Personally, I would like to see the A380 find a niche as a “Super Beluga” for outsize cargo that B747-Fs cannot accommodate, but I think it’s long odds that will happen.
Nonetheless, there are still some specialized markets for long-haul, high-load factor operations, including charter operations, where some A380s could earn revenue for passenger service. This would include certain regions, such as the Arab Gulf States and East Asia-Pacific routes.
Boeing 777–9 during roll-out, Everett, WA, 2019. (Creative Commons SA 2.0)