DALLAS — The Boeing 747 revolutionized air travel and ushered in the era of jumbo jets back in the 1970s, but these days it is often used to carry packages, not people, and its future is uncertain.
The hump-backed behemoth got a boost Thursday, however, when UPS announced it has ordered 14 Boeing 747-8 cargo freighters and took an option for another 14.
It’s the biggest order for the 747 since Lufthansa ordered 20 back in December 2006.
Neither Boeing nor UPS disclosed terms of the sale. At list price, 14 747 freighters would cost $5.3 billion, although big customers routinely get discounts on planes.
Boeing has delivered more than 1,500 747s since the first one went to Pan Am in 1970, but the number of 747s rolling off the assembly line has slowed to a crawl in recent years. It’s not just the 747; orders for a much newer four-engine plane, the Airbus A380, have also stalled.
As the remaining 747s get older, airlines are retiring more of them. United Airlines recently announced that it would mothball its fleet of 747s by the end of 2018.
Before the UPS announcement, Boeing had received only four new orders for the 747 this year — and one cancellation. The 747 accounted for less than 2 percent of commercial planes that Boeing has delivered since the start of 2015. As of Sept. 30, there were only 15 unfilled 747 orders out of a total Boeing backlog of 5,600 planes, mostly 737s.
For United Parcel Service Inc., the planes will help it haul a growing load of air freight around the globe. UPS expects to take delivery of the first two in late 2017 and put them on international routes. It will shift older 747 models to shorter U.S. routes, where their poor fuel mileage will be less of a factor.
Boeing said the 747-8 has 16 percent more room for cargo than the 747-400 freighter and creates 30 percent less noise around airports. It is the fourth generation of the venerable plane.
Even if the 747 is nearing the end of the line, it has had a remarkable history.
Its distinctive shape made the double-decker among the most iconic planes ever. It has carried millions of passengers around the globe, and its size and financial benefits helped make international air travel possible for the masses.
The Air Force tested using a 747 equipped with lasers to shoot down ballistic missiles, but the program was scrapped. More successfully, Boeing modified the big plane to carry the NASA space shuttle piggyback style. And since 1990, 747s have served as Air Force One for presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama.