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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.