The 747 is Quickly Disappearing From Passenger Service

Without question, the 747 was one of the more incredible advances in commercial aviation history. It was an enormous gamble by Boeing that really marked the beginning of modern, high capacity, long haul travel. (It’s also, in my opinion, one of the best looking airplanes around.) Sadly, but predictably, this magnificent aircraft is rapidly disappearing from passenger service. We need to look no further than Los Angeles to see just how rare the airplane is becoming.

Lufthansa 747-400 at LAX

As a major Trans-Pacific gateway, Los Angeles International (LAX) has long hosted 747s from many of the world’s airlines. While 767s had started to replace larger airplanes over the Atlantic years ago, the distances over the Pacific were too great. The 747 reigned supreme.

Just a decade ago, in 2004, I count nearly two dozen different operators of the passenger version flying more than 30 flights per day from LAX alone. All were 747-400s except for Northwest, which still, amazingly, had a 747-200 to Narita. (There were plenty of other cargo operators, but they’ll continue to fly 747s for a long time, so this post is focusing solely on passenger aircraft.) By the end of this year, after China Airlines and Asiana pull their last 747s from LAX, the airport will be down to a mere 5 operators with fewer than 10 departures per day.

What has happened to all those flights? Each one falls broadly into one of four different categories. Let’s start with the easiest one. These are routes that are no longer flown at all.

LAX 747 Market Exit

United long ago pulled out of its ill-fated Hong Kong route, one that didn’t make sense on a 747 or any airplane. Singapore got rid of its Taipei route as it upgauged its Narita flight, but we’ll talk about that later. Qantas pulled out of its Auckland route, though that had previously been downgauged to an A330 before it was eliminated altogether. JAL dropped the failing Osaka/Kansai route, though that’s one that I could see resurrected with a 787 one day. Lastly, Air India and Malaysia pulled out of LAX entirely, realizing they weren’t a good fit for the market with any airplane.

None of these are gone because the 747 failed in its mission. Some of these never should have been flown at all (United), while others (like Osaka) may work with smaller, more efficient aircraft.

It’s that latter point that has really been the biggest downfall of the 747. There are just a lot more efficient airplanes that can fly not just these failed routes but many more successful ones. And most of those airplanes are smaller. Half of the operators who flew 747s to LAX are flying smaller airplanes today.

LAX 747 Downgauge

The 777-300ER is the clear airplane of choice for airlines looking to improve the efficiency of their operation. It’s not a huge downgauge, but it is smaller. Depending upon how airlines configure the airplane, you usually see a drop of about 50 coach seats while keeping premium seating similar. With two extremely efficient engines compared to the 747’s four older ones, the 777 is a vastly more economical airplane. It’s no surprise that we see EVA, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, JAL, Philippine, and Air China all exclusively operating 777-300ERs into LAX. On December 2, China Airlines will join that club with both its flights.

Other airlines have downgauged even further. Thai, which has never really found a great way to serve LA, has a 777-200 going through Incheon today. That probably allows them to lose less money than before. Air France has a 777-200 going to Papeete (we’ll talk about Paris later), and Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific) had a strategy change which meant the introduction of much smaller A330-200s. Then there’s United which has converted its Tokyo flight to a 787, its Sydney flight to a 777, and stopped flying 747s domestically.

But not every airline is going smaller. Some are going bigger. And there’s only one airplane that can fit that bill.

LAX 747 Upgauge

Of course, the larger aircraft being used is the A380, but it’s not always a straight capacity increase that’s occurring. Yes, Korean has had a big capacity increase with two A380s and a sub-daily 777-300ER (that goes on to Sao Paulo). Asiana will upgauge one of its flights to an A380 this summer, though that seems to be more of a response to Korean than a rational commercial decision.

Singapore has upgauged to an A380 on its Tokyo flight, but as mentioned earlier, it also pulled out of the Taipei market. So the overall capacity that goes on to Singapore from LA is down when you factor that in.

It’s a similar story with British Airways which has gone from 3 daily 747s during the summer to just two A380s. (It still sort of has a third daily with American’s joint venture flight, and that was upgauged last year from a 777-200 to a 777-300.)

Air France has upgauged one flight to an A380 but the other is down to a 777-200 so that keeps total capacity in check.

Lastly, there’s Qantas. It strangely never ordered the 777-300 despite it being a good fit for its network. (It has said that was a mistake.) Instead, Qantas has gone with the A380 and that means a big capacity increase in LA. It has one A380 to Sydney and one to Melbourne now. It still has a 747 on another flight to Sydney (which goes on to JFK at the other end) and one to Brisbane. It just doesn’t have another airplane to fly these routes… for now.

The A380 is bigger, and it has lower seat costs. For an airline like BA, it makes sense to go to 2 daily on a bigger airplane when flying to a constrained airport like Heathrow. But it’s a niche player, and we probably won’t see a big expansion of A380 service outside of Middle East-based airlines. But it could replace a couple of the 747 flights that remain at LAX. Here those are.

LAX 747 Still Flying

KLM continues to fly 747s and is actually adding frequencies. Last year the MD-11 operated a second flight during the summer, but it will be a 747 this year. KLM is a unique airline in that it operates combi aircraft, so cargo is a big part of what it does in LA. But KLM is also an airline that keeps airplanes longer than others (remember, it still has MD-11s), so it’s probably a matter of time before we see another airplane step in.

Virgin Atlantic still has one of its flights to LA on a 747, but it has a lot of 787-9s and A380s on order and I would imagine it won’t be long before the 747 goes away.

Delta continues to fly a 747 to Narita, though that has changed over time. The 747s aren’t going anywhere in Delta’s fleet for awhile, but they are working on a replacement order now. It won’t involve new 747s.

As discussed earlier, Qantas continues to fly 747s on some routes, but it is an airline that simply failed to order the right replacements. I would expect we may see a 787 on the thinner routes, like Brisbane, eventually. But until Qantas figures out a long term fleet plan, the 747 will continue to fly.

The only airline flying 747s to LA today that has a long future ahead is Lufthansa. It is one of the only airlines to have ordered the newer, and slightly bigger 747-8. It flies that to LA twice daily during the summer now. That airplane will fly for a long time, but almost no other airline has been interested. Korean Air has some on order, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them return the 747 to LA at some point, but that’s about it.

The reality is simple. Airlines generally want smaller more efficient aircraft like the 777-300ER (to be replaced by the 777X), the 787, or the soon to deliver A350. A few airlines see value in the A380 but there really aren’t many that can use it well. The 747 sits in the middle, of little interest to most airlines today.

An airplane that once dominated the long haul market is well on its way to endangered status. It makes sense economically, but emotionally, it’s a sad thing.


73 Responses to The 747 is Quickly Disappearing From Passenger Service

  1. Neil S. says:

    It’s a bummer.

    I just did JFK – SIN on DL, with the JFK-NRT legs on the 744. What a nice, quiet ride. And even though upstairs was full, it was pretty calm and private. Unlike the business class cabin of the KE A380.

    I was also super excited when a 744 was swapped in for a 777 on the NRT-SIN leg.

    They will be missed.

  2. 121 Pilot says:

    I’m curious why the United Hong Kong flight was such a bad idea?

    • Sanjeev M says:

      LAX-HKG is 4 daily on Cathay and they dominate. Probably UA needs a 787 to make LAX work, but they are better off flying SFO-HKG.

      • Oliver says:

        Until Cathey decides that they could likely push around United at SFO as well by upping their frequency from two to three dailies?

    • CF says:

      121 Pilot – Not as bad of an idea as JFK-Hong Kong was since United had almost no presence in New York at the time, but it still is an extremely long haul where, as mentioned, Cathay Pacific is dominant. United doesn’t have the same kind of dominance and loyalty as it has in San Francisco.

  3. Ron says:

    Virgin Atlantic also flies the 340-600 to London. Also not the most efficient aircraft.

    I wonder how much of the change is due to increased capacity on the 777 with 10-across seating. Several years ago I flew LAX–CDG and back on Air France and they had two configurations on the 777 — 10-across one way an 9-across the other way. The 9-across was definitely more comfortable, but I see why the airline wants to put in that extra seat.

  4. Bobber says:

    Sad, but not sad.

    My first flight ever was on a BA 747-200, LHR to BOS. Other than that, my multiple 747 flights were all on UA (probably why they weren’t that great – other than the top deck experience when I got bumped ‘early’, IAD-LHR – lovely, except for the sodding member of Ben Folds Five who sat next to me and had verbal diarrhoea), except for one flight on a Qantas 747SP; this was a swap-out, and a really nice surprise, on a flight from SYD to CNS – the pilot effectively pulled a handbrake turn, coming into land, touching down with a single set of wheels before plopping us down ridiculously smoothly. Sodding Aussies – always showing off.

    I much prefer the 777, and I love the A380 (but have only flown SIA, so wouldn’t know how it compares with otter carriers).

    • Bobber says:

      Oh. Forgot the F trip from LHR-SFO, 3 weeks after the BA 772 incident at LHR; the cabin crew were (amusingly) very bitchy about BA leaving their wreckage at the end of the runway….

      (here’s hoping for a safe trip to SFO tomorrow…)

  5. Dan says:

    My first flight on the 744 was, incidentally, from ORD-SFO. I had UA pass travel benefits at the time, and dad wanted to go fly the 744 just for the heck of it. (Some people never grow up.) So off we went. We got J in the hump on the way out, and F in the nose on the way back. Not a bad way to kill a day :)

  6. David SF eastbay says:

    My first airplane flight was a NW 747 SFO-HNL (the plane continued on to Tokyo). My time working at TWA saw a number of trips on 747’s even if just domestic segments.

    I still like the look of the 747 over that ugly A380, and while the cargo version will still be around, it’s sad to see the passengers one disappearing.

  7. Mark Johnson says:

    The 777-300 laid some of the first nails in the B747’s coffin. The 777x will finish the task. The unfortunate by product of the 777’s success is that the 747 has been relegated to the freight world and most likely the desert.

    We’re seeing freight companies moving toward the 777F as their weapon of choice to fight increasing costs.

    Two engines is just a lot cheaper than four engines.

    Great article as usual. Thank you for the fantastic insight and information.

  8. Sean M. says:

    Are these airplanes that are no longer used just ending up in the California or Arizona deserts? Or are they going to other places, not just LAX.

  9. Richard says:

    My first 747 flight, as a kid, was on PEOPLExpress, from I-forget-where to Brussels. It sticks in my mind because the pilot was a woman, which in the mid-’80s was pretty unusual. For whatever reason, I remember her name: Beverly Burns. I googled the name a couple of years ago, and it turns out she was the first female commercial 747-rated pilot.

    I remember the “cash register” carts and paying for our tickets while in-flight. Not sure if those are fond memories, though.

    • cornbear says:

      My first 747 flight was during a NWA strike in the early 1970’s. I slinked past the pickets to get on a 747 going from MSP to ORD (a distance of about 400 miles). I was flying student standby on my way to Boston.

  10. bobsmith says:

    I love the 747 and am sad to think about its looming exit from the skies. It is funny to think now that they were even utilized for domestic routes- as late as the early 2000s I flew one from ORD to SFO. It is also interesting to learn about the legacy of the 747 and to note all the cities once served by the marvelous aircraft. In the U.S., what are some of the non-hub cities have seen regular 747 service? I know PDX had it back in the day on Pan Am to Japan, I believe with a stop in SEA. Any smaller cities that had it?

    • Leslie in Oregon says:

      During much of the 1970’s, Pan Am flew daily PDX-SEA-LHR and LHR-SEA-PDX 747 flights and daily non-stop 747 flights between PDX and HNL. There never was a regularly-scheduled Pan Am 747 flight from PDX to Japan, with or without a stop in SEA.

      Pan Am’s 747’s were beautiful, and it was a real privilege to work as a Pan Am cabin crew member on the very first 747 passenger flights on any airline. I used to love to sit in the furthest aft crew jumpseat, at L5 or R5, look up the aisle before me all the very front of the a/c and time the period between the main undercarriage wheels’ lift off and the nose wheel lift off, while watching the angle of the cabin increase from horizontal.

  11. Sean says:

    I was just thinking about how few passenger 744s are still around as I watched a BA 744 depart from the gate over at DFW on Friday. I feel fortunate to have caught a 744 flight on Cathay Pacific from HKG to SFO back in 2008 (my only flight on the 747).

  12. Have ridden the older Lufthansa 747’s between LAX and FRA quite a bit while travelling to Europe. they’re falling apart inside. Was hoping they’d replace with 787’s or an A380, not just a newer 747. I recently found cheaper tickets on BA’s A380 to Heathrow. As a passenger, the quieter cabin and newer in-flight entertainment are enough to make me just filter out Lufthansa for anything over the Atlantic.

    • CF says:

      Clint Byrum – Why would you be upset about the 747’s at Lufthansa being replaced with the 747-8? Other than the ratty interiors (not an issue on a new airplane), what don’t you like?

  13. JayB says:

    What a wonderful aircraft! To watch it take off, you’d think, well, that thing will never get off the ground. Too big, Too slow. But, eventually, up it went.

    On board, I never quite got used to the landings when the ceiling always seemed to rattle. Hope, it doesn’t collapse, but just like some great big bridge making a few groans in the wind., I suppose.

    And oh, to expeience the SP. I’ve arrived.

    Burning up those remaining Pan Am FF miles, just before its end, First Class to India and back. Ah, memories!

    But, that big old Super Connie was nice to fly in and to look at, too!

  14. Johnny Jet says:

    My first 747 and international flight was back in 1993 on United’s LAX-HKG! That plane will always hold a special place in my heart.

  15. Yo says:

    As a true non-rev geek, I was able to get South African to change my return flight CPT-MIA to the 747SP on CPT-JNB-FRA. I knew it was probably the only time I’d get to fly the SP.

    I loved it. I love the 747, even the junkpiles we used to fly for America West.

  16. RickB says:

    I am flying UA 747 FRA-ORD in July – riding in the hump. I’m sure this will be my last trip in a 747. I will miss it.

    One of my best 747 trips was LHR-NBO a number of years ago. It was a daylight flight and 4 of us friends were the only ones in the hump. It was an 8 hr party.

  17. Don Murray says:

    As a former airline employee, I got to fly on multiple 747s. One memorable flight was from JFK to CUR. My wife and I were in first class and the only other passengers were the pilot’s wife and child. They provided a wonderful meal, prime rib if I remember right.

    More recently, we traveled to Beijing (then transferring to Shanghai) for a China tour. We didn’t get an option for requesting seats so we ended up in the back right in from of the back wall where we couldn’t move our seat backs for a twelve hour trip. This was when North Korea was doing its saber rattling so the course actually flown was much more northerly than would be expected and probably took an extra hour so it was less than comfortable. We ended up with the exact same seats on the way back.

    Overall, I enjoyed flying on 747s, although I like the 767s these days. The 777s seem a little less spacious in comparison. I haven’t been on a 787 yet.

  18. Arie Boris says:

    I grew up with the 747…As a college kid in January 1969..went out to JFK for some plane spotting and met a Pan Am Mechanic. He invited us to come with him to the Pan Am hanger two days before the first 747-100 commercial flight from JFK to LHR to see the beautiful monster(way before post 9/11 security). We walked underneath, past those gigantic landing gear…all four sets of them and then climed a mechanics ladder onboard to see the aisle carpeting covered with protective paper…we walked all over the airplane front to back(brillent “PA blue” and red seats/interior), into the upperdeck lounge & cockpit…what a thrill! And I remember the headlines in the next few days about the 8 hour delay on the first 747 commercial flight with all those celebrities onboard due to engine stall problems…way before ETOPS! I remember thinking how lucky to get an extra 8 hours on that beautiful airplane…Hands down my favorite airplane ever!

  19. Jamie Mackay says:

    The current way things are looking VA is never going to get those A380s. Too much airplane for their routes and especially given the competition from BA.
    I wouldn’t worry about BAs’ 747s disappearing anytime soon from LAX. I reckon they’ll be back in time for Christmas.

    • Ed says:

      That does seem to be the case. They deffered their order to 2018 and have been making noises about cancelling it altogether.

      They seem much more bullish about the 787-9 which may fit their business model much better. Although they fly out of slot constrained heathrow they are much more about O&D travel as they don’t have BA’s European network or a European partner any more. 787 seems to fit much more closely with how (part-owner) Delta think about capacity.

    • CF says:

      Jamie Mackay – Not so sure about the BA 747s coming back. Next winter, they just downgauge one of the A380s to a 777.

      As for Virgin Atlantic, true about the A380s. But they will eventually get something to replace the 747s, and I would be shocked if it were a 747-8.

  20. The 747’s will definitely be missed, they have provided such an allure of international travel for many years. My first international trip was in 1991 on a Northwest 747-2 from BOS to LGW. I thought I was in heaven!

    Very sad, but understandable, to see that the 747-8’s are not finding a home with airlines. Does anyone think that Boeing felt pressured to develop the -800, as an answer to the A380 and to continue the lineage of the 74’s?

  21. philip says:

    Malaysia did not pull out all together; they continue with 777-200ER.

    • CF says:

      philip – They did fly the 777 for some time, but Malaysia is no longer flying to LAX at all as of last month.

  22. Stephen says:

    My parents used to take us to Manchester (Ringway) airport at weekends during the 70s to watch the 747s take off. In those days you could walk out on the roofs of the gates which served as open air observation decks. I don’t remember the airlines; maybe BOAC at that time?

    My first flight on a 747 was LHR-JFK on Pan Am on June 23rd, 1978 on my first trip to the U.S. Had to walk to another terminal to connect to an Eastern 727 to MIA; not many flights to MCO in those days. My last 747 flight was RUH-LHR 6 months ago, I think; the BA 747s are quite comfortable (I only fly coach). The worst 747 flight was on NW MSP-NRT in 2008 – 100% full, no entertainment, middle seat (my wife had the window).

  23. Frank of America says:

    Hands down my fave jet as well. Flew many 747SPs between LAX-LHR during the 70s. Pan Am and TWA. Almost went down in one (TW760) taking off from LAX. Gale force Santa Anas literally created a vacuum in the engines causing combustion to stop. Back up systems came on immediately and re-started them with a 15 foot plume of flame coming out the back of #2 starboard. Plane rocked and rolled for several seconds. I thought we were going down for sure but the plane stabilized and we kept going. The captain came on after 10 minutes or so and explained what happened. Mentioning that we’d lost power in just one engine. It was one of the flight attendants who told me about 1/2 way through the flight that we’d actually lost power in all four engines and had it happened a few seconds earlier we’d have crashed in the Pacific. Scariest flight experience I’d ever had. Was lucky enough to fly in the bubble on a recent flight NRT-SFO. They will be missed.

  24. DesertGhost says:

    I hated to see the DC-3 and Lockheed Constellation go, too. Both went the way of the boneyard because something better came along. Progress has its down side.

  25. Ah, the 747…

    Friends flew one of the first Pan Am 747-100 flights from NRT to LAX in 1970 and reported that the economy class food service was a single sandwich. My wife and I flew a Varig 707 combi on the same route a couple of days later and were boggled by the service — leather-bound menus with gold tassels, incredible food, even a Droste chocolate apple as a farewell gift. I asked a steward if this was really economy class service. He confirmed it and apologized that there was no first class on that flight because of the cargo; he would have shown me what first class got.

    And a TWA 747 from LHR to LAX: I was sitting in an economy exit row seat across from the flight attendants positions. As the plane descended, ice cold water thawed from frozen condensation at the top of the fuselage and dripped down the back of my neck. No problem: I popped open my pocket umbrella. The attendants loved it.

    On another TWA 747 from LHR to LAX, again sitting in the exit row across from the flight attendants, I looked out the window at the wing after the flaps lowered and saw an exposed sheet of metal flapping in the wind. I pointed it out to the attendant across from me and said that the Captain might want to know about it. She agreed and left her position, either to tell him personally or to use a galley phone where she wouldn’t be overheard by other passengers.

    And then there was my only time on a 747SP — on CAAC, the original Chinese airline, from Guangzhou to Beijing. It was all economy, very tight pitch (I’ve no idea how many seats), and we filled in the rows as we were herded onto the plane and had no seat choice. The food was a plastic-wrapped sandwich of unknown content that I didn’t explore. The flight attendant English announcements were the same as Pan Am’s, word for word, but were apparently read phonetically without any understanding of what they meant.

    Or the ANA all-economy 747 I flew from Tokyo to Sapporo. The seating was REALLY tight (somewhere around 500 seats), and someone at the airline saw my Anglo name and assigned me to a bulkhead seat, which was the only way I could have fit. I was very grateful but didn’t know whom to thank.

    Or the incredible SIA service I received when I developed an incredibly painful and dangerous corneal ulcer on a 747-300 flight to SIN via NRT. A SIA ground rep escorted me off the plane, through immigration and customs to the NRT medical clinic, translated for me and the doctor, insured that I understood the drug instructions, escorted me back through immigration and into my seat — they had held the flight for me — and made sure that the flight attendants knew not to serve me any alcohol because of the antibiotic I had been given. Not only that, they had the doctor in the SIN medical clinic come in — the plane landed there after 1 am — and escorted me there and to the shuttle for my overnight hotel. For all of that service, there was no charge. Now THAT’s service… Not a 747 story as such, but worth retelling.

    I just remembered the Pan Am 747-100 and -200 flights from LAX to SFO… much nicer experience than the usual shuttle service…

    Tomorrow morning, I get on an LH 747-400 business class flight — unfortunately with the old seats — from FRA to YVR.

    I’ll miss the 747…

  26. Paul says:

    What routes does United fly the 747? I’m wondering if I should catch a flight before they are gone

    • CF says:

      Paul – They still do a lot of Asia, mostly out of San Francisco. They’ve brought it back to Chicago now though – it does Frankfurt, Narita, and Shanghai from there.

  27. Jose Fernando Vega says:

    Last summer I flow MIA-FRA in Lufthansa 747-400 incredible fly very smooth. Great airplane

  28. W. Thomas Zander says:

    I was a captain on the 747-400 for UA and although I only shut down three jet engines during a 34 year career It always felt good to have four under the wing while over the oceans.
    Truly a magnificent flying machine. I loved it!

  29. Hajime Sano says:

    I flew United B747s a lot during the 90s to visit my maternal Grandpa in Osaka before he passed, and for short track speed skating world championships (1997) and the Nagano Olympics (1998) as a volunteer. Usually SFO-KIX, but some times LAX-NRT, and once LAX-HNL and HNL-KIX.

    Early in the decade they were B747-200s, but gradually upgraded to B747-400s. Back when upgrading with miles was easier and didn’t cost money, I usually upgraded to the Business Class seats upstairs. What a treat that was! The upstairs, even when full, seemed so much quieter than Business Class downstairs.

    When we flew from BOS to ITM (Osaka’s old airport) in 1972 for my paternal Grandpa’s funeral (BOS-YYZ-YVR-NRT-ITM [most of it on CP Air], and back through HNL though I don’t remember the routing), one of the legs was on a B747. When we landed, the crew let me take a peak at the upstairs piano lounge. Going up the spiral staircase and getting a peak at the lounge made quite an impression on the 12-year old version of me.

  30. Paul R. says:

    I recall riding one of the early 747-400s in (approx.) somewhere around 1993. NWA had been providing frequent local service between their main hubs, DTW – MSP, and assigned a “400” for one late-afternoon flight. It provided plenty of capacity at the 5PM “rush hour”, and (IIRC) allowed the plane to be serviced and then positioned for the longer intercontinental flights ex-MSP. Anyway, it’s not every day that you can get a big plane like this for a short domestic hop. And: since it’s such a short distance, the plane is relatively light at takeoff, as it doesn’t need fuel for 5000 miles of flight. I’d been bumped to First, and sitting in the main deck, front (nose cone) section. Upon takeoff, wow! Did we go up! It was like it was effortless, almost had to rein it in. Maybe this is all just misty remembrance, but it was one of the fun times I had in a 747 and the powerful plane made an impression on me.
    I also had the good fortune to ride once or twice in the NWA 747-200s between NRT and LAX. I’d been able to wangle some kind of upgrades or something, and so did at least 2 transpac trips in the upper deck area. It had (IIRC) seating for 12 (three rows), and retained the legroom spacing from the Royal Class (full first class) days, even though by then being sold as “mere” Business Class seating. That was really fine. Maybe not a lot of windows, but that helped keep it cosy and one was able to get good rest in there. Plus, of course, coming up the famous spiral staircase to get in there!
    Ah, the memories!

  31. Trip Seven says:

    I never been on one, but I can feel them slipping away.

  32. npw99 says:

    I remember boarding an Air New Zealand 747 at the dead of night in Auckland, way back in October 1980. I could smell the jet fuel, and we were on our way first to Honolulu and then LAX.

    I don’t think it was my first 747 flight, and it certainly wasn’t the last (a shitty semi-freighter KLM from Shanghai to Amsterdam in 2012 – I hope it’s not my last!), but the scene will never leave me. It left me spellbound, and still does.

  33. DK Mashino says:

    So much reminiscing! I remember my most-frequent 747 flight was UA44 (when it was HNL-ORD) and equipment then was a 747. I don’t know how many iterations UA44 actually went through to what it’s become today, but boy what memories!

  34. Hajime Sano says:

    The Japanese airlines regularly used to use B747s for domestic service, where no flight is more than approximately 1.5-2 hours. I don’t know if they still do that.

    On the Osaka to Tokyo (and vice-versa) run, some people prefer flying, others prefer the bullet train.

    • CF says:

      Hajime – Nope, the domestic 747s have now all been retired in Japan. They still run big airplanes domestically but no 747s.

    • Hajime Sano says:

      The consensus was that there were two crowds- one that would rather avoid an air disaster, the other would rather avoid a rail disaster.

  35. Jet Girl Worldwide says:

    As a former airline brat who grew up non-revving in the pre-deregulation 1970s ~ I had the privilege of flying on UA 747s with the F/C upper deck bar lounge from SFO to BOS & JFK and back. It was the pinnacle of my childhood travel! Once the lounges were converted to regular seating, the 747 lost its appeal. Then as an adult, I flew on Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabins with flat beds and stand-up bars a couple of times across the pond. They really brought the glamour back to the skies.

    • ChuckMO says:

      Former airline brat myself here. First 747 was in 1971 or 1972 on TWA JFK-MAD. Last 747 flight was also TWA, LGW-STL. Seems strange I haven’t been on one in over 20 years. Most interesting flight was probably the 1974 flight on TWA JFK-LHR when we ferried an engine over attached to the port side which I had a good view of from my window just ahead of it. So I’m one of those lucky few who have flown a 5 engined 747. It sounds like all my 747 flights were on TWA but I flew UA’s to Hawaii several times, an AA from JFK to AUA, Pan Am LIS-JFK and BA ORD-LHR-ORD. I think that’s it!

  36. Cecil in Seattle says:

    Someone commented about 747’s going in to small airports.

    Typically Northwest ran several 727 a day from Billings to Helena, Missoula, Spokane and finally ending in Portland, Oregon. During the summer I would fly from Portland to Billings to visit my grandparents. I loved the window seat over the wing so I could listen/feel/see the hydraulics at work on the flaps for all the take offs and landings we did on each of those trips. Sometimes if I got lucky, they would board the plane in Billings via the rear steps in the tail.

    As usual for Northwest, they were on strike again. This time it was in the mid-70’s and I was stranded in Montana and needed to get back to Portland at the end of the summer.

    During this strike, Northwest ran one flight a day, a 747, through Billings to Portland with a stop in Spokane or Great Falls, I can’t remember which. The route started in Minneapolis, I believe. Check in for this flight was eventful. This was back in the day when you didn’t have pre-assigned seats. Rather, you would check in and the ticket agent or the gate attendant would have a printed layout of the plane with pull off stickers for each seat. They’d decided where to seat you and pull of the sticker for your seat and stick it on the ticket jacket. That’s the seat you were assigned.

    Apparently, not having this kind of plane on a regular basis in Billings, they didn’t have the 747 layout sticker thing to give us our seats at check in. Rather, they waited for the plane to arrive, determine which passengers were still on the plane, removed their seats from the plane layout and then proceeded to assign the remaining seat/stickers for those boarding in Billings. And I thought that was a really efficient way to assign seats back then.

    I flew by myself in First Class in the nose and thought that was the best thing in the whole wide world. A huge seat and windows that practically let me see out straight ahead. The matronly flight attendants most definitely were selected based on seniority for this flight…they appeared to be at least 60 years old..at least this 14 year-old thought so.

  37. TC99 says:

    I remember vaguely flying on a 747 as a small kid from NY (I think JFK) to Denver. I think it was Continental. The best part was when my dad brought me to the game lounge where I played an early version of Pong, and they had many different types of other games as well.

    Most of my trips to MNL were on NWA’S 747’s from DTW via Osaka or Nagoya. With the Delta merger, most of these planes were relocated to NY and they reduced capacity to 777’s, so now I fly KAL on my annual trip to see my son. This last trip on the return was the first not flying a 747 as it has been upgraded to an A380 from Seoul to ATL.

    I love sitting in the first row in the back of the plane where the seats go from 3 to 2 due to the tapering of the back. It gives me extra room along the window side of the seat to stand or turn and sleep sideways in the seat. I miss this in the 777’s and the A380.

  38. NM says:

    CF, one you missed (an important one for me):
    El Al…my first time *ever* on an airplane was LY LAX-ORD-AMS-TLV on 747-200 in 1986 at age 11, a most indelible moment on my memory. It took around 22 hours in total and I remember they let us out in AMS for an hour to stretch, no such luck in ORD where I remember seeing what felt like hundreds of shiny silver AA metal — 727, DC10, MD80. It was awesome, and I was bit with the aviation geek bug.

    In 1995 I did the trip non stop LAX-TLV on 747-400, about 14 hours block time and if i recall the longest commercial flight at the time!?

    Of course LY continues but many years ago switched service to 777-200 ER, but I think they’re running it 4 or 5 x weekly.

  39. SeatDisciple says:

    I remember sleeping sprawled out across the entire center section of seats in a half-full SAS jumbo during a night flight from New York to Copenhagen in the 70’s. It wasn’t cheap to fly back then, but the 747 was very comfortable – if not always very profitable for the airlines.

  40. tharanga says:

    go to SFO and you’ll see a huge line up of UA 744s. It’s like a time warp.

    And if you sit in Y on that 744, it’s also like a time warp – in a bad way.

  41. J.P. says:

    The first flight I remember the planes I was on was when I was in 3rd grade and father took my sister and me to see his family in Australia. This would have been in 1978, I think. We flew a TWA 707 from JFK to SFO, a Qantas 747 to HNL and another to SYD. Qantas 747 to LAX via HNL again, and then a TWA L-1011 back to JFK. It is a great memory for me, since I had always been a plane nut, but I was finally old enough to actually recognize the planes I was on. Plus, looking back, I’m glad I got to experience so many classic aircraft on the trip. I must have been on one of the last 707s to be in passenger service, at least in the U.S. It was such a contrast going from the 707 to the 747.
    It was another trip, to the same place that I got to fly on an SP. SYD to LAX non-stop. That pilot flew her like a fighter jet too.

  42. jay says:

    I live in St Paul just 3 miles north of the end of runway 4/22. Except for high crosswind weather days, that runway is rarely used for takeoffs to the north. The only plane that used it on a regular basis was the daily NW/DL 747 flight to NRT (Tokyo Narita).
    When I was at home on the weekends and started to hear the rumble coming, I’d jump up and go outside to see her pass overhead. It was quite the experience to have all four engines at seeming treetop level. Once it even set of a car alarm in the street.
    With the downgage to a 330/777 after a long run of 747, I missed that sound. Now that the 747 is back for the summer, I’m looking forward to it again. No twin can replace that feeling.
    And yes, my wife thinks I’m an idiot for running outside to see an airplane with more excitement than Tattoo from Fantasy Island.

  43. David SF eastbay says:

    Talk about small cities with 747 service, remember back in the early days of widebodies the only place you could fly to Hawaii from the mainland was Honolulu and Hilo. Once or twice a week airlines like NW/UA/WA would stop in Hilo and since they used 747/D10’s those were large planes for a city the size of Hilo.

  44. Robert says:

    I have gotten to fly the B747 a couple of times/ As a UA EMPLOYEES, I HAVE HAD THE PRIVALGE OF FLYING THE B747-200 ,from IAD ,[my favoritye airport] to MIA and then onto EZE/ only 2 of us were in the hump-bump,upstairs in Business class and then I got F-class,in the nose—SOOOOO FUN
    I took my Dad to HKG ,and we got F-class from ORD-HKG and again on the way back, [my Dad has still not opened the bottle Royal Crown Select, he bought on duty free]

    I love the B777 and hope UA will cancel the GROSS A350 order and order the new B777-X ,SO ALONG WITH THE B787,on order, UA will have more FLEET COMMONALITY AND COST SAVINGS–JUST 2 WIDEBODY AIRCRAFT TYPES ,THAT CAN FLY ALL OF UA’s intl-routes

  45. Stu in PHX says:

    In 2004, an equipment repositioning put me on a United 747 IAD-LAX with less than 50 passengers. Plenty of elbow room. In fact, they asked people to move up so they wouldn’t have to use the rear cabin(s). A flight attendant was nice enough to let me check out the upstairs cabin, which was empty for the flight.

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  47. No Fly Zone says:

    Heck yes, the B747 has served the world well. The art and science of airplane building have simple out paced this huge, comfortable monster that usually required >85% loads to break even. We knew it as on the way out ~7-8 years ago when many long haul carriers stopped upgrading (or even maintaining?) the interiors. I’ve spent more butt-in-seat time on 747s than any other long haul airplane and never experienced a significant event. Pilots report that it was a joy to fly and FAs appreciated having some elbow room in which to work. The several replacements are great airplanes, but none are quite the same. Time to move on…

  48. Niraj K says:

    My first ever flight was on a 747. In 1980 I was on an Air France 747 from DELHI-TEHRAN-PARIS and then on another 747from CDG to JFK.

  49. Kent Asche says:

    Interesting and memorable comments from a wide demographic environment. As a former Pan Am Pilot (B-727 / Berlin Based) I have had the pleasure of flying on the B-747 many times on both long haul and short haul flights that all were truly memorable. I recognize of course the efficiencies of the B-777 and the new B-777X however that does not replace memories nor the “experience”. I have had the distinct memories of sitting in many different seats on the Queen of the Sky, loved First, Business was Delightfully Memorable without question, and economy even was solid good. This aircraft is a Rock Solid aesthetically (internally/ externally) pleasing aircraft. Bottom Line economics are not on its side but the 747-800i is just a pace or two off.

    However, based on these comments and my own experience (that’s what we seek) I “do” believe the 747-8 Intercontinental and some further aerodynamic and engine tweaks and a overhaul “tip-tail” with new cutting edge synergistic materials (skin & spars) + propulsion systems/ APU and electronics on the B-747-400’s have a place in the hearts and minds of those 38+ years old. The added safety of 4 cutting edge engines, stunning heritage, with modern conveniences and old world “white glove personalized service” would perhaps command a 3-5% ticket premium. I would pay it in a heart beat.

    It seems many whom have spoken/ comments are not commodity driven clients of airlines as are the 20’s and early 30 year old crowd. It is often said “It is the Journey not the Destination that is memorable”…”what if” the Journey “Was the Destination” and a sizable Boutique Operator catered too a niche group in diversified classes on highly competitive routes in the Trans Continental and Trans Atlantic/ Pacific markets? I do believe the 747-8i can be tweaked to lose 4,000 – 6,500 pounds and the B-747-4 with modifications above and some passionate MRO specialist and engineers can drop in excess of #8,500 lbs. of this fine model. Think about the parts costs and availability, airframe costs (desert birds) as well as the ROI, ROA,and CASM (Cost a Seat Mile) vs. RASM (Revenue a Seat Mile) and demand for a “premium experience” with economies of scale factored in? I believe the “product” as well as the memories and “experience” would perhaps command an additional $58 per seat Trans Continental, and $155 Trans Atlantic & Pacific.(?)

    If one would incorporate a cutting edge interior nostalgic design with light weight materials (777x) and have a slightly (5 rows) convertible Business Class & Economy Class section (based on load factors and times of season > Reducing Weight / Enhancing Space > Cutting Ops Costs)…this aircraft would win hands down with the 38+ and older clientele. Just an opinion but I think there is room for negotiations with Boeing on the 747-8i & those B747-4 that are destined for the desert or indignity of Cargo only. Look forward to your thoughts and comments…this is model is something I have looked at for sometime now.

  50. Luke C says:

    It is indeed a sad thing Cranky – thanks for a great piece. At 13 years of age my first international flight in 1972 was on Pan Am, a 707 “Clipper Eclipse” SYD-HNL and then connecting to 747 “Clipper Unity” from HNL-LAX and I don’t know if I’ve ever replicated that feeling of excitement :)

    There – that’s out of my system.

  51. Michael V says:

    It’s a sad thing to hear. My first ever flight was on an Air New Zealand 747-200. This summer I based my vacation purely around 747 flights. I flew on an A380 and I still don’t like it as much as the 747.

  52. CF says:

    So much for Virgin Atlantic. It was announced today that Delta will use a 767 to replace Virgin’s 747 service at LAX. (Virgin will still fly the A340-600 on one flight.)

  53. Alex Hill says:

    It’s worth noting that it’s the 787 that helps United’s downgauge of LAX-SYD from a 747-400 to a 777-200 make sense, since they can replace the SYD-MEL 747 tag leg with a 787 nonstop from LAX.

  54. Rossano Lamagna says:

    What makes NO sense to me is that airlines want smaller and more fuel efficient planes, yet they will buy the A380. The A380 is hailed as though it were a twin engine fuel efficient plane. The 747-8I has EVERY potential of being a success, IF only airlines would give that plane the chance. I am glad Air China and Korean Air are the two Asian carriers that ordered the 747-8I. I hope to fly on that plane, and I wish that other airlines would consider the 747-8I. Of course I will miss the 747-400, no doubt as that has been my FAVORITE plane. I flew on China Airlines to Hong Kong on a 747-400 B18210 in the Dreamliner scheme. Thankfully, I have a model die cast 747-400 in the 1/200 scheme. I have a momento of the plane I rode on. I too will MISS the 747. I wish Asiana Airlines would buy the 747-8I. I really think the A380 along with the big twin’s killed the 747. I just WON’T ride the A380. I would take a 777 or 787 over that plane if I had to. I am in the mileage with Korean Air and want to try out that 747-8I once they deploy them. I hope to see them at LAX and SFO.

  55. Kent Asche says:

    I made a comment on 20 May 2014 for your review. Though I am not a Phd Aerospace Engineer, I have worked amongst and with many over the past 35 years as a pilot, aerospace executive and aero-entrepreneur. It is my firm belief and I have gotten validation from a globally noted and highly esteemed aero-engineering company (privately) that looked at the changes and also firmly believe an additional $600-800 million in custom R&D would totally revitalize this iconic aircraft…I am talking about the B747-400 & ER Versions. With lower tier one and higher/mid tier 2 countries respective airlines this “fix” would be the perfect niche aircraft between the 777-300ER / 777x / A380 and A350.

    On a cost per A Seat Mile (ASM) in a standard configuration) it would actually beat the B747-800i & freighter by approximately (no less than) 7-9%. Aircraft length would be extended by 10 feet (3.05m) and the upper deck tapered by 6.5 feet (1.98m). The beauty of this project would to revitalize this superb aircraft, utilizing numerous B747-800 NexGen mission critical efficient parts, APU, Generators, Avionics etc. etc. however the engine configuration would allow lowering landing gear height by 3.4 feet, drop tire/rim/brake weights (to save at least #4,500 lbs) using ready to certify cutting edge meta materials. Speed increase would be higher (27 ktas- 31mph), service celing and altitude of FL450 (45,000 feet) Range at Max Take Off Weight +1,800nm (2,130 miles) at same cruise speed as new B747-800, and belly freight o r”combi combined” volume and weight capacity would increase `#7,000 lbs. >>> Just shy of the B747-800i and there is no B747-800 Combi.

    Bottom line engine configuration (change) and NexGen II engines are nearing development and certification. The additional altitude up to FL450 (45,000) eliminates weather diversion, cuts drag 4-5% over FL410 (41,000ft) and allows aircraft to proceed “direct” almost all the time. There are numerous savings here but this is all feasible and viable in the B747-400 aircraft sitting in deserts, awaiting freighter overhauls, or are eating up airlines profits due to efficiencies, some mentioned above, there are many other “positive” snowball effects.

    If one “lease” options guranteed by after 5 years utilization, and “Banks”, Hedge Funds, Leasing companies “bulk bought” these aircraft and/or are sitting on a turned in asset that is burning through cash flow…one could purchase this aircraft in safe, solid condition for $14 million to $17 million. If there were pre-orders for the totally overhaul and refinements of only 200 aircraft the R&D would be costed in at only $3 million per copy.

    The in depth overhaul, would put a $15 million B747-400 (good shape) + $3M R&D = $18M – $20M. Now consider that a Freighter overhaul of a passenger B747-400 is ball park $35 million.

    This heavy R&D and zero time air frame work by several noted MRO’s and 40 year platform Experts + the Next Gen Materials, accessories, parts and additional tweaks was “estimated” to be $65M each looking and mechanically new and upgraded. This bottom line is $20M +$75M conservatively for a $95M dollar game changer that fits a perfect niche that no other new airliner can touch in operational costs or procurement and overall ownership costs. Just food for thought…comments, thoughts, or rebuttal please???

  56. Kent Asche says:

    I made a comment on 20 May 2014 for your review. Though I am not a Phd Aerospace Engineer, I have worked amongst and with many over the past 35 years as a pilot, aerospace executive and aero-entrepreneur. It is my firm belief and I have gotten validation from a globally noted and highly esteemed aero-engineering company (privately) that looked at the changes and also firmly believe an additional $600-800 million in custom R&D would totally revitalize this iconic aircraft…I am talking about the B747-400 & ER Versions. With lower tier one and higher/mid tier 2 countries respective airlines this “fix” would be the perfect niche aircraft between the 777-300ER / 777x / A380 and A350.

    On a cost per A Seat Mile (ASM) in a standard configuration) it would actually beat the B747-800i & freighter by approximately (no less than) 7-9%. Aircraft length would be extended by 10 feet (3.05m) and the upper deck tapered by 6.5 feet (1.98m). The beauty of this project would to revitalize this superb aircraft, utilizing numerous B747-800 NexGen mission critical efficient parts, APU, Generators, Avionics etc. etc. however the engine configuration would allow lowering landing gear height by 3.4 feet, drop tire/rim/brake weights (to save at least #4,500 lbs) using ready to certify cutting edge meta materials. Speed increase would be higher (27 ktas- 31mph), service celing and altitude of FL450 (45,000 feet) Range at Max Take Off Weight +1,800nm (2,130 miles) at same cruise speed as new B747-800, and belly freight (revenue) or “combi combined” volume and weight capacity (revenue) would increase `#12,000 lbs. >>> Just shy of the B747-800i and there is no B747-800 Combi.

    Bottom line engine configuration (change) and NexGen II engines are well into development and nearing certification 12-18 months. The additional altitude up to FL450 (45,000) eliminates weather diversion, cuts drag 3-4% over FL410 (41,000ft) and allows aircraft to proceed “direct” almost all the time immediately after takeoff unresticted to FL390 at Max Gross Weight & FL450 1+30 hrs later and 1+45 hours to a preliminary tested “high speed cruise” at Mach .893. There are numerous savings here but this is all feasible and viable in the B747-400 aircraft sitting in deserts, awaiting freighter overhauls, or are eating up airlines profits due to efficiency, some mentioned above, there are many other “positive” multiplier effects to give a revitalized aircraft paradigm shift performance and customer satisfaction at a “Low” Lease / Option to by Total Ownership Cost per hour of revenue operations.

    This slightly reconfigured aircraft with (STC’s) would likely get a 95% pass prior to full certifications…there is only one real change which comes in form of creative engine configurations and synergies of new technologies…slight wing sweep increase to 39.5% and some tweaks to nose fairing and upper deck aerodynamics. Using carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP-x) laced with Carbon nano tube just the weight savings on a single engine pylon is “ball park” #700 lbs, and reduces drag!

    If one “lease” options guranteed buyy after 5 years utilization, and if “Banks”, Hedge Funds, Leasing companies “bulk bought” these aircraft and/or are sitting on a turned in asset that is burning through cash flow…one could purchase this aircraft in safe, solid condition for $14 million to $17 million. If there were pre-orders for the totally overhaul and refinements of only 200 aircraft the R&D would be costed in at only $3 million per copy. This airframe has a solid 23 years of profitable life if flown 4,500+ hours per year on profitable routes…break even should be in the 61%-63%…a drastic difference with 86% load factors of many of today’s aircraft.

    The in depth overhaul, would put a $15 million B747-400 (good shape) + $3M R&D = $18M – $20M. Now consider that a Freighter overhaul of a passenger B747-400 is ball park $35 million.

    This heavy R&D and zero time air frame work by several noted MRO’s and 40 year platform Experts + the Next Gen Materials, accessories, parts and additional tweaks was “estimated” to be $65M each looking and mechanically new and upgraded. This bottom line is $20M +$75M conservatively for a $95M dollar game changer that fits a perfect niche that no other new airliner can touch in operational costs or procurement and overall ownership costs. Just food for thought…comments, thoughts, or rebuttal please???

  57. Kent Asche says:

    Correction that revenue generating passenger/cargo flight hour would be highly profitable at 71% load factors if operated right at 440+ hours per MONTH and 4,500 revenue hours and market share capturing per YEAR. So, twenty four (24) years at average 4,150 hrs annually due to various maintenance check (A-D Checks), tests, and upkeep is an ideal “highly” profitable goal. This “averaged 4,100 hr annual airborne utilization which averages out to be a “cost” per hour of asset “if” paid cash per hour for “Dry Leasing” of $965 dollars per hour for asset alone, no fuel, crew, insurance, catering etc… and it does no include out of warranty servicing over the 24 + unforeseen maintenance items.

    To be clear I mentioned in the above post of a Fuselage extension of 10 feet and the 747-400 extended upper deck models also “Lengthened” but tapered over 6.5 feet and tweak the aerodynamics with the nose cone section and “Frontal Profile”.

    Why 24 years and why now. Now Airline Manufacturer is going to build the Boeing Blended Wing until 25 years from now if they do not find something more revolutionary and game changing. Boeing spent a reported $12 Billion+++ on the new B747-800i / freighter…it needs some tweaks. To keep the supply chain healthy (parts & consumables) for the -800 this 747-550 ERx-CF alternative mentioned directly above would keep cash flow coming in, more notoriety for the -800, time for additional tweaks, materials upgrades (saves 3% weight overall) if used in critical areas over the older carbon fibers and parts metalurgy.

    I do not think the Boeing 747-800 is dead, it is taking a breather so some of the older technology can be upgraded with materials, fire wires, and aerodynamic enhancements + get an additional +3.3% better fuel burn out of re-tweaked and refined engines!

    Today 8-9 years from concept, materials and parts procurement + FAA Certification that 8-9 years is a long time since the quantum leap advancements in CAD equipment, software, meta materials, computing power, even aluminum has substantially strengthened and weight has dropped by 27% in some cases for that aluminum. Carbon Reinforced Plastics laced with Carbon/Carbon nanotubes and micro glass spheres (3M Corp) is actually 3 times stronger than pure Titanium, 10% lower in weight, and costs 30% LESS…this is Lockheed Martin’s out of autoclave CFRP-x and of course it is proprietary…but others are close to matching it.

    So just some corrections from the above posting an hour or so ago. It would be interesting to get your thoughts on the Boeing 747-550 ERx-CF concept…it still will have that iconic look with NexGen Aerodynamic Concepts on CAD computers in the past 4 months…this aircraft would be hard to beat either Transcontinental USA (2,400 miles), even heavy use 1,000 mile legs. It will shine in the 4,000 mile to 8,000 mile range at Max Payload Capacity!

    Give me your thoughts, ideas, comments, suggestions, rebuttals etc. etc…it would be interesting to hear numerous folks highly knowledgeable in Airliners and Engineering as well as those that love the 747 and what their acceptance would be. The seats, 4 classes, and light weight interior materials with cutting edge in-flight entertainment systems will all be on board, weight, comfort, convenience, ambiance, amenities, purified air, the “experience” and Memories as well as the journey not the destination is what matters most.

    Let me hear from you so I can get a feel of what market acceptance would be?

  58. malcolm says:

    Having just travelled with Virgin to LAX twice on their 747-400’s and just about to do the same again I can only say that as a traveller it has become an unpleasant experience. This is because the Airlines i.e. Virgin are not spending any money in decor/interior maintenance knowing that these planes are due for the scrapheap. Why i wonder would Virgin sustain a major route like LHR/LAX with these tired old ladies is amazing. Needy and gullible customers – marketing faux pas extraordinary.

    Don’t get me wrong it was a great, great plane in its day. Its just the airline management greed that amazes me.

    OK i should switch to a carrier that uses more modern planes. However the FF program has me in it’s hooks…..

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