You can’t call yourself an airline dork if you don’t love the 747, and I can imagine that many of you shook your head in dismay when you read the subject of this post. I’ll admit, it was hard to write those words. United has announced it has moved up retirement of its 747s to the 4th quarter of this year. That should be awful news, especially since Delta’s 747s will also be going at the same time. After all, there’s a reason this image is in rotation as the header on this site.
That is one majestic-looking aircraft. And as the first widebody to enter commercial service, the 747 brought long-distance air travel to the masses like no other airplane. If you were lucky enough to sit in the premium cabin, the nose and the upper deck provided a unique experience you would’t and still won’t find anywhere else. (I’ve been fortunate to experience both.) But there’s the glamour of the airplane, and then there’s the reality of a United 747.
United’s 747s probably provide the worst passenger experience in the entire fleet, and United can only blame itself for that. Even though they fly some of the longest routes in the United network, the 747s were never outfitted with personal screens in coach. Pre-merger United was notoriously cheap, but even post-merger management failed to justify that expense since the aircraft wouldn’t be flying long enough to make the cost worthwhile in their minds. Instead, United acted like it was being innovative and added streaming content and wifi on the aircraft.
This may sound like a fair substitute, but it was plagued with problems. First, United failed to install power outlets in coach, and people’s devices ran out of juice long before those intercontinental flights ended. United eventually relented and added power outlets. Early reports were also that it wasn’t very reliable. That has improved over time, but I still see people grumbling when it doesn’t work and there is no backup plan.
In Business Class, United has its first generation forward/backward-facing flat bed seat which has been universally derided. Its only saving grace is that thanks to the upper deck and galley configurations, there are very few rows with the dreaded 4 seats in the center section. But it’s still a seat that many actively try to avoid.
Still, as frustrating as some of these things may be, the biggest problem isn’t the onboard experience; it’s the aircraft’s operational reliability (or lack thereof). United had neglected these (and other) aircraft for so long before the merger that the post-merger team ended up isolating the fleet in San Francisco to try to get a handle on maintenance issues. Its reliability has improved significantly, enough to let it fly out of Chicago again, but it’s still not good enough.
In the fourth quarter of last year, United’s 777 and 787 fleet were consistently canceling fewer than 1 percent of flights. The 747 canceled 1.8 percent. (The 767-300, another neglected pre-merger United aircraft, was only slightly better). And then there’s on-time performance. I think this chart says it all.
With all of this background, you can see why I’m glad to see United retiring the 747. I can only assume that United looked at the airplane, the additional cost to operate it versus a newer widebody, the lack of operational reliability, etc. Then it also looked at some of the overcapacity plaguing international markets. Putting those two things together, United figured it could put the 747 out to pasture, save a bunch of money, and reduce capacity all in one fell swoop.
It looks like the 747 fleet has once again centered on San Francisco now, with the last 747 flying in Chicago appearing to have just been completed. This summer, we’ll see 747s from San Francisco to London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Beijing, and Shanghai. By the end of the year, those will all be replaced with other existing widebody aircraft that will presumably be pulled off other routes.
We don’t know the exact phase-out schedule yet, but it should be published in the coming weeks. I will, of course, be sad to see the 747 leave yet another airline. But I won’t cry to see United’s 747s in particular retire.