Today, Saturday 9 February 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Boeing 747.
The first Boeing 747 aircraft, named “City Of Everett”, took off from Everett in Washington State.
Pan American World Airways was the first airline to operate passenger flights, from New York to London on 21 January 1970. Trans World Airlines followed shortly afterwards, operating the aircraft on domestic flights between New York and Los Angeles.
Aside from meeting Federal Aviation Administration requirements, the immediate concern was the ability of airports to handle the aircraft, at the time the biggest passenger jet in service. Both London Heathrow and New York JFK had to implement makeshift arrangements to handle the aircraft.
It may seem strange to think now, but there were also doubts as to whether airlines could fill the aircraft with passengers.
One of the two immediate predecessor airlines to British Airways, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) began passenger flights from London to New York on 14 April 1971. It had been delayed by a year, partly due to an industrial dispute with its pilots.
The 747 has of course been the mainstay of BOAC’s successor airline and its main UK rival Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic began passenger flights from London Gatwick to New York in 1984, using a leased second-hand Boeing 747-200.
BA ordered the Boeing 747-200 shortly after the airline came into existence in 1974. These, along with BOAC’s original Boeing 747s remained with BA until the 1990s. BA then placed a substantial order for the Boeing 747-400 in 1986 and 1990.
At its peak BA had 57 Boeing 747-400 aircraft in service, all delivered between 1989 and 1999. As of February 2019, there are now 34 aircraft in service. The precise retirement schedule is under constant review, but current plans are that the aircraft will be retired by February 2024. Virgin Atlantic also plans to retire its last Boeing 747s before then.
The Boeing 747 used to touch all parts of BA’s network. It has also operated many Royal flights, including Prince Charles to Hong Kong for the official handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. 747 charter flights for sports teams include “Sweet Chariot” for the England Rugby team to the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, “Pride” for Team GB to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and “Air Force Scrum” for the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa in 2009,
The Boeing 747 now largely operates exclusively on North American routes and some routes to Africa.
Two events sealed the fate of the Boeing 747 at BA.
In the late 1990s when BA faced falling yields due to price competition, it decided to opt for the smaller Boeing 777-200 which is now the largest single long-haul aircraft type at the airline. The financial crisis of 2008 also saw a number of aircraft retired.
BA is now the last operator of Boeing 747 passenger flights at Heathrow. There is a very long list of airlines that no longer operate the 747, either to Heathrow or at all, including Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and United.
Whilst the 747s of today may not have the lounges of the original aircraft of the 1970s and they are some way behind more modern aircraft, there are still many aspects that are popular with passengers, namely the upper deck and the nose. Short of a major economic shock prompting BA to radically change its fleet plans, there is a good five years in the Boeing 747 yet.