The iconic Boeing 747 is almost finished as a passenger plane as BA retires its fleet

July 17, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

Somebody told her that there was a place like heaven
Across the water on a 747
Yeah, we’re living in a modern world

—Electric Light Orchestra, “Calling America” (1986)

The original jumbo jet, Boeing’s 747, is nearing the end of its runway after half a century of service.

On Friday, British Airways management signaled the early retirement of all 31 of the carrier’s 747-400s. That’s about a tenth of BA’s total fleet.

“It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect,” BA said in a statement.

Until now, BA was the world’s biggest remaining operator of 747-400 passenger flights. Lufthansa also owns 13 of the craft, along with 19 of the newer 747-8 model, while Air China and Air India also still operate a handful of 747-400s. U.S. carriers such as Delta and United retired theirs a few years ago. Air France did the same in 2016.

KLM’s last 747-400 passenger flight took place in March this year, and Qantas’s is scheduled for next week. Pretty soon, the only 747s actively in service will be cargo planes—a few hundred are still being used for this purpose.

Generally speaking, the big reason for the retirements is fuel efficiency; the twin-deck, four-engine 747—whose 64-foot-high tail is as tall as a six-story building—is of little use to airlines that are desperate to cut emissions.

The Space Shuttle Columbia on a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier in the 1980s. The Columbia Orbiter operated between 1981 and 2003. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Space via Getty Images)
Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Airbus’s once-competing A340 is in a similar situation, as is its far newer A380. Contrary to expectations, it turned out that very few routes really require a giant plane.

“While the aircraft will always have a special place in our heart, as we head into the future, we will be operating more flights on modern, fuel-efficient aircraft such as our new [Airbus] A350s and [Boeing] 787s, to help us achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” BA said Friday.

But the pre-existing trend has been accelerated by this year’s coronavirus pandemic, which abruptly killed off most international travel and has forced airlines—many of which were already contemplating slimming down—to scramble for survival. BA itself is bracing for as many as 12,000 job cuts.

The industry expects it will take at least a few years for passenger numbers to recover. In the meantime, it makes little sense to keep maintaining giant planes that were soon going to be retired anyway; the smarter option is to use smaller craft that allow carriers to retain their valuable slots at major hubs without spending so much in operational costs.

“It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” BA, which was originally planning to phase out the 747-400 by 2024, said.

BA has been operating 747s of one variety or another since 1971, a year after Pan Am became the world’s first airline to put them into service. It took deliveries of the 747-400 model in the decade between 1989 and 1999, at one point operating 57 of them. (Only Japan Air Lines had more, with a fleet of 100—the last of which was retired in 2011.)