Pan American World Airways, for whom the Boeing 747 aircraft was designed, was the first airline to operate passenger flights, from New York to London on 21 January 1970.
It may seem strange to think now, but there were doubts as to whether airlines could fill the aircraft with passengers. In addition, there were concerns about 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.
“All the 747 needed was BOAC service.”
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. You can see footage of the cabin interior, with its Monarch lounge on the upper deck in this video:
The 747 would be progressively added to many North American routes.
By the time BA was formed in 1974, the 747 was already significant part of BA’s fleet touching all parts of its long-haul network. All 18 Boeing 747-136 aircraft were delivered by April 1976, by which time all services to Australia were operated with 747.
However, longer range destinations still required stops en-route. BA also ordered the Boeing 747-236 and these, along with BOAC’s original Boeing 747s remained with BA until the 1990s.
However, due to financial pressures in the early 1980s, some Boeing 747-136 aircraft were sold and some new Boeing 747-236 were sold before delivery.
Improvements to engines in the 1980s also meant that destinations in Asia could be reached non-stop and Australia could be reached with one-stop en route. BA then placed a substantial order for the Boeing 747-400 in 1986 and 1990. BA did inherit some Boeing 747 aircraft following its acquisition of British Caledonian, but these were soon disposed of due to lack of compatibility with the BA fleet. One aircraft was of course destroyed in Kuwait.
At its peak, BA had 57 Boeing 747-400 aircraft in service, all delivered between 1989 and 1999. As of August 2019, there are now 33 aircraft in service. The precise retirement schedule is under constant review, but current plans are that the aircraft will be retired by February 2024.
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. 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. And when it finally leaves the fleet, it will be greatly missed.