British Airways is to retire the Boeing 747 with immediate effect.
At this stage it is officially a proposal, subject to consultation with trade unions. However, this appears to be a fait accompli as BA says the aircraft are likely to have flown their last scheduled commercial services.
This follows decisions by Qantas and Virgin Atlantic to immediately retire the aircraft due to COVID-19.
It is hard to overstate the impact the Boeing 747 had on civil aviation, BA, and what its early retirement will have on BA’s route network and profile of passenger traffic.
The Early Days Of The Boeing 747
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. 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 with the bold claim “All the 747 needed was BOAC service”.
It had been delayed by a year, partly due to an industrial dispute with its pilots. Prior to the launch of 747 services, BOAC opened its own dedicated terminal at New York JFK, today known as Terminal 7.
The 747 would be progressively added to many North American routes such as Chicago, Miami, Montreal, Toronto and Washington, as well as South Africa.
The Boeing 747 At British Airways
By the time BA was formed in 1974, the 747 was already significant part of BA’s fleet.
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.
Due to financial pressures in the early 1980s, some Boeing 747-136 aircraft were sold and some new Boeing 747-236 aircraft were sold before delivery.
Improvements to engines in the 1980s meant that destinations in Asia could be reached non-stop and Australia could be reached with one-stop en route.
BA placed a substantial order for the Boeing 747-400 in 1986 and 1990. BA did also 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 BA Boeing 747 aircraft was destroyed in Kuwait after the 1990 Gulf War.
At its peak, BA had 57 Boeing 747-400 aircraft in service, all delivered between 1989 and 1999. These operated from both Gatwick and Heathrow. 747s were transferred from Gatwick to Heathrow as part of a simplification of BA’s operations at the turn of the century.
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, “Air Force Scrum” for the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa in 2009 and “VictoRIOus” for Team GB from the 2016 Olympic Games. Each year, the 747 also took children with a disability or severe illness on a special flight to Orlando, for the charity Dreamflight.
The Retirement Of The Boeing 747
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. Although BA was mocked by Virgin Atlantic which daubed “4 Engines 4 Long-Haul” on the side of its aircraft, economically it proved to be the right decision.
The aircraft was progressively withdrawn from longer range routes such as Australia, Asia and Latin America. In a sign of how much the dynamics of aviation have changed, in 1999 BA operated 28 Boeing 747 return services to Australia a week. BA has not operated the Boeing 747 to Australia since 2012.
Then there was COVID-19.
Whilst BA was already retiring many Boeing 747 aircraft, the airline had planned to keep the aircraft in service until February 2024.
As at 31 December 2019, BA had 32 Boeing 747 aircraft in service out of a fleet of 132 wide body long-haul aircraft.
The original plan was to have 25 aircraft in service by the end of 2020, 20 aircraft by the end of 2021, and 12 aircraft by the end of 2022. BA was also in the process of refurbishing many aircraft with new in-flight entertainment systems and refreshed interiors.
Prior to its retirement, the Boeing 747 operated almost exclusively on North American routes and some routes to Africa.
The aircraft operated in two configurations, with either 52 or 86 Club World seats. It seemed to serve BA particularly well carrying high volumes of premium passengers to the US East Coast.
Many routes such as Cape Town, Miami and New York JFK were operated almost exclusively with the Boeing 747. These will be replaced with alternative aircraft types from other routes, which may in turn leave the BA route network permanently.
The retirement of the Boeing 747 will radically change the profile of routes such as New York JFK, where BA used to despatch up to 8 Boeing 747s a day. That’s some 1,376 business class seats between Heathrow and New York JFK a day. Long-haul premium traffic is the life blood of BA and it is clear it is going to have to survive the next 2-3 years with significantly reduced demand.
The 747 will be replaced primarily by Airbus A350-1000, Boeing 777-300 and Boeing 787-10 aircraft. Please see here for a guide to BA’s (pre COVID-19) fleet plans.
BA was the last operator of Boeing 747 passenger flights at Heathrow. It will be greatly missed. Although, there are more advanced aircraft now in operation, it remained a hugely popular aircraft with passengers. This was particularly because of its 20 seat Upper Deck for business class passengers and its First Class cabin in the nose of the aircraft, which benefited from no through traffic.
Whilst the circumstances of its retirement are not what anyone would have wanted, hopefully the aircraft will be given a fitting send off.