Before COVID-19, BA had more than 30 Boeing 747 aircraft in its fleet and had planned to retire its last aircraft in February 2024. All aircraft have been retired due to COVID-19 with many aircraft completing their last scheduled passenger flights in March 2020.
These are flights, some of which are still controversial to this today, that are remembered for the wrong reasons. More BA 747 flights from happier times will be shared tomorrow.
BA9 “All Engines Fail” – June 1982
On 24 June 1982, a BA Boeing 747-236 aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth plunged 25,000 feet.
All four engines had failed after the aircraft hit a cloud of volcanic ash from Mount Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia.
Captain Eric Moody, who at the time did not know the cause of the engine failure, told passengers: “This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem and all four engines have stopped. We are doing our damndest to get them working again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Captain Moody, First Officer Roger Greaves and Engineering Office Barry Townley-Freeman spent 13 minutes trying to regain power on the engines. The aircraft subsequently diverted to Jakarta, where it landed safely.
The Last Flight To Kuwait – August 1990
The circumstances surrounding flight BA149 on 1 August 1990 remain a source of controversy to this day. The flight was scheduled to depart London Heathrow at 16:15 GMT for Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait and Chennai.
There had been news reports on the day of escalating tensions between Iraq and Kuwait. BA claims it was advised by the British embassy in Kuwait that the situation was calm and there was no reason for the flight, operated by Boeing 747-136 G-AWND, not to operate.
The aircraft was in radio contact with BA in London during the flight. At no point were the flight crew advised of an impending invasion or to divert the aircraft.
The aircraft landed in Kuwait at 04:13 local time. At around 05:00 local time the airport closed. In the next hour the runway was attacked by Iraqi forces and the aircraft was evacuated. Passengers and crew immediately went to an airport hotel.
According to BA, 310 passengers and 82 BA employees were held hostage by Iraqis. Women and children were allowed to return home in late August. The remaining hostages were dispersed to various sites and some were used as “human shields”. The last remaining passengers and BA employees were released on 9 December 1990.
The aircraft was destroyed following the liberation of Kuwait.
The controversy surrounding this flight is why it proceeded to operate when other airlines had suspended operations and who in BA and the UK Government knew what, and when.
It has been alleged that the UK Government wanted the aircraft to land in Kuwait to enable an intelligence gathering exercise to take place.
BA has always denied any knowledge of a group of intelligence operatives boarding the aircraft at Heathrow. The UK Government maintained that the aircraft landed in Kuwait before the invasion and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a statement to that effect before Parliament.
BA has always maintained that it had no knowledge of the impending invasion of Kuwait and that it would never put its aircraft, passengers and crews at risk. No passenger list has ever been released for the flight.
A number of passengers sued BA in different jurisdictions. The airline settled cases brought in the US out of court, citing the cost of litigation. Passengers from France sued the airline and the courts found BA to be negligent and passengers were paid substantial damages. In the UK, attempts to bring the matter to court have been unsuccessful there has been no public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the flight.
Had 2020 gone to plan, around 25 BA Boeing 747 aircraft would now be despatching passengers betweenLondon Heathrow and numerous destinations around the world.
Those seeking Christmas in New York or winter sun in Cape Town, heading for the alternative reality of Las Vegas, or skiing in Colorado or Whistler via BA would have been carried on a 747.
Some may have complained about ageing interiors or antiquated inflight entertainment systems on certain aircraft. Those sat on the Upper Deck or in the nose of the 747 would have sat comfortably knowing they had at least another three years to enjoy their favourite seats in the house.
Events, as we know, took a very different course in 2020. 31 Boeing 747s met an abrupt and undignified end, save for four that will be preserved at Dunsfold Aerodrome, Kemble Airport and Bro Tathan Business Park, Glamorgan.
It’s not the first time unforeseen events have had an impact on BA’s 747 fleet.
After the events of 11 September 2001, BA’s 747-236 aircraft followed the 747-136 fleet into retirement. 747s at Gatwick were transferred to Heathrow as the airline switched routes to Africa and Central & South America to the airport.
In the early 1980s, the airline urgently needed to cut costs. Two Boeing 747-136 aircraft were sold to TWA in 1981. Four new Boeing 747-236 were placed into storage, with two ultimately sold to Malaysian Airlines.
That said, there was continued evolution in the Boeing 747 fleet from the early 1980s.
“The Widest Way To The USA”
One benefit of the Boeing 747 for passengers was that it allowed airlines to introduce new cabins beyond economy and First Class.
After introducing Executive and Club Class for full fare economy passengers, in 1981 BA introduced a dedicated “Super Club” cabin with six abreast seating, dubbed the widest seat in the air.
This would later evolve in to Club World, dubbed the “profit engine” of BA, with the Boeing 747 aircraft being the first to benefit from many innovations and new seats.
“Get Down Under 3 Hours Quicker”
Modifications to engines also enabled improvements on longer range routes, with BA claiming in 1984 the fastest journey times to Australia, a claim previously made by Qantas.
In part one we looked at the introduction of the aircraft at BOAC, primarily on transatlantic routes. As BA continued to take delivery of more Boeing 747-136 aircraft, and longer range Boeing 747-236 aircraft, it continued to reach more destinations and cut journey times.
“East, West, Our Jumbos Are Best”
In the immediate years following the merger of BEA and BOAC, the 747 was touching all corners of BA’s global network.
New 747 network additions included Boston & Philadelphia, Kingston, Bermuda & Nassau, Tokyo via Anchorage (known as the Polar route) and Auckland.
“Wide Bodies All Over USA!”
By late 1975, BA served New York, Boston & Philadephia, Washington & Detroit and Miami with daily Boeing 747 services. Anchorage was served with a Boeing 747 three times a week.
The one exception in the United States was Los Angeles which was served by a DC10 aircraft. This was leased from Air New Zealand and was operated by BA crews between London Heathrow and Los Angeles, and by Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Auckland.
In 1976, Barbados gained a non-stop Boeing 747 service with the aircraft continuing to Port of Spain, Trinidad.
At the same time, BA trialled an enhanced economy class service for full fare passengers on flights between London Heathrow and Hong Kong.
48 seats in Zone B of the aircraft were designated as an “Executive Cabin” with a free bar service and inflight entertainment.
“All-747 Service For Australia”
By the summer of 1976, BA had 18 Boeing 747-136 aircraft in its fleet. All services to Australia – Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney – were operated with the Boeing 747.
However, multiple stops were still required en route. Only Perth had two stops en-route on some weekly flights. All other cities in Australia served by BA required at least three or four stops.
“A Touch Of Class For Executives”
After a successful trial on flights between London Heathrow and Hong Kong, the “Executive Cabin” was extended to all Boeing 747 flights in 1977, save for Chicago.
The main benefits were being first to receive the economy inflight service and early disembarkation from the aircraft. Being seated in the Executive cabin was not guaranteed – it could only be requested at the time of booking and passengers were advised to check-in early.
That was the promise of BOAC as it introduced the Boeing 747 in 1971.
It was a tacit admission the airline had been behind its competitors in introducing the aircraft into service.
It is an understatement to say the launch of the Boeing 747 at BOAC was troubled. It would, of course, become the backbone of its successor airline British Airways until its abrupt and undignified retirement in 2020.
BOAC placed its first order for six Boeing 747-136 aircraft in 1966, following government approval. This would soon to be increased to twelve aircraft.
Although BOAC took delivery of its first Boeing aircraft in May 1970, three aircraft sat idle at London Heathrow for a year due to dispute with its pilots over pay and productivity.
The delay was estimated to have cost BOAC upwards of £25,000 a day. Its transatlantic rivals Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines were already operating the Boeing 747 from London and were able to take advantage of rising passenger numbers between Europe and the US.
It did at least allow BOAC to learn of some of the teething troubles of Pan Am and TWA where some passengers complained of chaotic food and beverage service, malfunctioning inflight entertainment, long queues for bathrooms and extended waits for baggage on arrival.
283 passengers were on board the aircraft, which had capacity for 300 passengers in tourist class and 50 passengers in First Class with 6 galleys and 12 bathrooms. At seat inflight entertainment consisted of 4 stereo and 3 mono channels of music. In common with other airlines, the Upper Deck featured a dedicated “Monarch” lounge for First Class passengers.
The launch of flights to New York JFK was not the end of BOAC’s industrial troubles as a dispute with engineers briefly grounded the aircraft again.
BOAC was keen to emphasis distinctive features unique to its Boeing 747 aircraft, such as its humification system. Other features claimed to be unique to BOAC included adjustable headrests and artwork on bulkheads.
After New York JFK, daily services to Montreal and Toronto followed on 12 July 1971. Economic pressures did however force BOAC to cancel orders for a further 4 Boeing 747 aircraft beyond its initial order of 12.
In November 1971, BOAC launched what it claimed was the first direct Boeing 747 service to Australia via Hong Kong and Darwin.
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”.
The Boeing 747 is going to be a fixture at BA until February 2024.
At present, there are 36 aircraft in service, all at London Heathrow. However, there are very sharp differences between aircraft in the fleet.
Refurbished 86 Club World Seat Aircraft
18 of these aircraft operate with 86 Club World seats.
These regularly operate on routes such as Austin, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, Lagos, Los Angeles, New York JFK, Philadelphia and San Francisco. These were refurbished in 2015 with new carpets, seat covers, and cabin lighting.
The in-flight entertainment system was replaced with new screens, a more responsive interface and more content, as well as USB power ports.
It is likely that these will be amongst the last be retired.
Non-Refurbished 52 Club World Seat Aircraft
Another 18 aircraft operate with 52 Club World seats, with the World Traveller Plus cabin positioned between First and Club World.
They regularly operate on routes such as Accra, Cape Town, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Nairobi, Phoenix and Vancouver. Many of these aircraft are expected to be retired over the next couple of years.
The state of these aircraft could not be more different. The World Traveller and World Traveller Plus cabins are nearly 20 years old. The last significant upgrade was the installation of an on demand in-flight entertainment system in 2006.
2018 Boeing 747 Refurbishment Programme
The refurbishment plans for the 52 Club World seat Boeing 747 aircraft are more ambiguous.
Some won’t be refurbished due to imminent retirement.
The last published fleet plan by BA’s parent company shows that 2 aircraft will be retired in 2018 and a further 3 in 2019.
Some aircraft have already had a minor “refresh” with a deep clean and new seat covers in World Traveller and World Traveller Plus, but no new in-flight entertainment system.
BA has however been planning to carry out a more substantial refurbishment to some aircraft.
The first aircraft to receive a full refurbishment, G-CIVO, was sent to BA’s maintenance base on Cardiff on 7 September 2018.
It returned to Heathrow on Thursday 11 October 2018 and is expected to enter service imminently.
It has been refurbished in line with the 86 Club World seat Boeing 747s with a new in-flight entertainment system with larger screens, new seat covers, carpets and cabin lighting. BA has not yet released press images of the refurbished aircraft. However, these are expected early next week.
It is not possible to predict exactly on which routes refurbished aircraft will operate. However, as non-refurbished aircraft are retired and those that remain are refurbished, the chances are greater.
An update on BA’s fleet plans is expected at the Capital Markets Day of its parent company International Airlines Group in November.
Some time ago, we wrote of British Airways’ plans to refurbish 18 of its 40-odd fleet Boeing 747 aircraft. Full details of the refurbishment programme are here.
As part of this refurbishment programme, BA is to also reconfigure the capacity of its Club World business class cabin on these aircraft.
Currently, BA has two Club World configurations on the Boeing 747, with either 52 or 70 business class seats.
The former is a relatively unusual arrangement introduced just under ten years ago whereby World Traveller Plus premium economy is located between first and business class. Although many bawked at the idea at the time, it did allow BA to increase its business class capacity by 8%, which was roughly the entire business class capacity of Virgin Atlantic.
On 6 Boeing 747 aircraft the number of business class seats will be reduced from 70 to 52.
On the 18 aircraft earmarked for refurbishment the number of business class seats will increase from 70 to 86, with an additional two rows of Club World seats.
This means there will be 66 business class seats on the main deck (with the remaining 20 seats on the upper deck). This will make for a very large cabin, so it will be interesting to see how this works in practice.
The number of World Traveller economy seats will be reduced to accommodate the extra seats. The number of First class and World Traveller Plus premium economy seats will remain the same.
The new larger cabin is expected to operate on routes with high business class demand such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Lagos.
NB. We should add we receive a lot of search enquiries about the condition of BA’s Boeing 747 aircraft, so it’s clearly a very live issue for passengers.