The Queen of the Skies is approaching her abdication. British Airways has announced that its 31 Boeing 747-400s will never fly again. There are still more than 500 747s in service with other airlines, although many are currently grounded because of the coronavirus crisis. But BA was the 747’s biggest operator. Its immediate retirement of its 747s marks the demise of the jumbo plane’s 50-year reign.
BA’s announcement follows similar decisions by airlines such as Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Air France. The last 747 in the Qantas fleet last week did a farewell sweep over Sydney and then flew across the Pacific to Los Angeles, before heading for its final resting place in the Mojave Desert.
Michael Donne, the FT’s first aviation correspondent, was present at the 747’s beginning. Describing his maiden Pan American 747 flight in January 1970, he wrote that boarding the plane was “like entering a private theatre”. As passengers looked down the cabin, a “sea of gaily coloured seats swims away for 62 yards”. Once in the air, the 747 showed its superiority over its Boeing predecessor. “The engine noise is lower than in 707 cabins, especially in the forward sections, and although still obtrusive in the rear sections, is nowhere near enough to drown conversation, or make it painful, as in the rear section of the 707. Indeed, the sound of passengers chattering may become one of the new sounds of aviation in the 747.”
With the aircraft approaching its end, BA pilot Mark Vanhoenacker wrote in the FT in February of his final 747 flight from London to Cape Town in the plane he had loved since childhood for its “size, its unique shape, and above all for the wonder and sense of freedom that those three famous digits so effortlessly conjure up”.
As a passenger, I am dry-eyed. I recognise the 747’s huge technical achievements and its role in bringing long-haul travel to billions, but the plane has, for years now, felt old, tired and noisy. I recall a BA 747 flight from Cape Town to London in 2011 where broken bits of rubber hung down from the overhead lockers. Although BA refurbished many of its 747s, I somehow often found myself on one of the unrefurbished ones. Any nostalgia I might have felt has been tarnished by the 747’s long goodbye.
The huge plane that really moves me is the Airbus A380. Yes, the 747 is big, typically with around 400 seats; the A380 can carry more than 600. Entering the 747 may have felt like going to the theatre; stepping into the A380 is like boarding a cruise liner. I have flown on A380s with BA, Emirates and Qantas. I have sat in economy, premium economy and business. I have never failed to be enthralled.
It is not only the size that conveys the feeling of a cruise ship. There’s the entertainment too. I have never enjoyed a movie library as deep as on a A380 Qantas economy flight from London to Melbourne. You could delve back as far as Some Like It Hot and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I watched all three Godfather movies, one after the other, emerging from the screen carnage surprised not to see blood in the aisles.
The A380 is quiet beyond the imaginings of that early 747 crowd. Not only can you talk on the A380, you have to whisper if you don’t want to be heard at the back. But the A380 is nearing the end of its run too.
Just 13 years after the first A380 flight by Singapore Airlines, Airbus is ceasing production. The final convoy of fuselage sections passed through the French town of Lévignac last month; the last A380 will be completed in the middle of next year.
Flying, as it slowly recovers after Covid-19, looks like being smaller, nimbler and point-to-point, rather than in huge aircraft collecting passengers at hub airports.
The long-haul planes of the future are the 248-336 seat Boeing 787 and the 350-410 seat Airbus A350.
Aircraft romantics and plane lovers seem out of date too; flying, in this environmentally conscious age, has become grounds for reproach.
The A380 will be around for decades. Airbus has delivered 242 of them to 15 airlines. But Airbus got flying’s economics wrong. In the late 1990s, Boeing and Airbus sparred over how many super-large aircraft the market could support. Boeing said fewer than 400 would be needed over the next 20 years. Airbus said nearly 1,500.
Boeing was closer to the truth. Its big plane prospered through the decades of explosive growth in airline travel, from 310m passengers worldwide in 1970 to 4.5bn last year.
The 747’s best years are now gone, but with the coronavirus crisis and the demand for smaller planes, it has timed its long roar into retirement perfectly.
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