United is Retiring Its 747s By the End of the Year, and I’m Glad

747, United

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.

Lufthansa 747-400 at LAX

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.

United 747 Poor Operational Performance

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.

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47 comments on “United is Retiring Its 747s By the End of the Year, and I’m Glad

  1. I once had 4 seats in coach for myself on SFO-SYD and because of the lack of personal video it was the best sleep I had ever received on a plane (and I’ve flown on lots of different airlines in first and business class). So I’ll miss the dark cabin.

  2. Knowing this was coming, I splurged a few miles to go top deck to SFO from LHR last October – just feels like a private jet, up there. But it is long since been time to euthanise the UA 747s – I did LHR-SFO-SYD in 2000, sat in the back (literally), and it was painful, then.

  3. I’m soooooooo old I can remember flying LAX/SFO-HNL when the upper deck was a lounge!

    Will try to make the last flight even tho I abhor UA. Just for the memories…

  4. Another huge 747 fan here. Many are the times I flew SFO-NRT-SIN and back, so this news is genuinely sad. but I am curious about the masFlight data. I seriously never expect a trans-pacific flight to arrive “Exactly on time” as the chart is labelled. I recall west-bound flights usually arriving plus or minus 15-30 minutes, and east-bound flights, especially during winter, arriving as much as 2 hours early! The variations had to do with assigned track (how far north or south) and wind speeds aloft.

    So what does masFlight mean when they say “Exactly on time?” It’s meaningless to assume a flight arrives “exactly” on time after 12+ hours aloft.

    Sidebar, the replacement 787 flights arrive in SIN in the morning. Miserable if you have a day of business to look forward to. The old 747 flights arrived at midnight which was perfect for a night of sleep and then hit the ground running in the morning … UA, are you listening?

      1. Thanks Ric. Yes, it’s on time or early, but it starts to get pretty wordy. So I just say “exactly on time” to mean it’s not the DOT 14 minute cushion.

  5. CF – have the retired 747s by a US airline gone to the boneyard and/or are they being sold to foreign carriers?

    never flew one but somehow I have a diff. feeling than other fleet phase-outs.

  6. I was lucky to be able to fly in the upper deck of an UA 747 from ORD-PEK in 2002 on vacation.
    As one of the other post stated, it WAS like your very own private jet.The upper deck had a very wide open feel to it because of the hump for the ceiling.
    The flight attendants set up the bar cart at the back of the cabin and it was our own private club for the entire flight.
    Unlike one of the other posts, I will be sorry to see such a wonderful, elegant airplane retired.

    I may try and get on the SFO-FRA UA 747 later this year for one last ride

  7. Of all the aircraft I’ve flown on the venerable 747 is one that I have not experienced. That said I do think still today it’s one of the most elegant looking aircraft out there. Much nicer on the eyes than the bulbous A380. I do have some 747 stories which are “almost” as good as flying one.
    Years ago I got a tour of the old Northwest maintenance facility at MSP. Got to step inside the cargo hold of a 747F. That is one big space. I also lived near FAR for a few years where NW used to do touch-n-go’s with their 747-400’s. Some great plane spotting there…and that lift force!
    Sure in due time I’ll be recalling the last time I saw a 747 in operational condition. Still fondly recall seeing some ATA L1011’s at hard stand in DFW. Never thought it’d be the last time I ever saw a serviceable version of that missed aircraft. Maybe I’ll have to make an effort to get on Lufthansa’s -8 version.

  8. Glad I flew KLM’s a few years ago, might be my only 747 experience.

    You what would be cool, a Delta and United 747 joint retirement party! They could fly in formation together for a big bash somewhere, probably Delta Museum in Atlanta.

  9. Is United retiring all of its 747s or just those flying regularly scheduled routes? I noticed that Ohio State has flown a United charter 747 (usually operated as UA 2215) when making long road trips such as to the Fiesta Bowl.

  10. Choose SFO-FRA on the 747 over a 380 this past summer, in anticipation of this happening. Luckily most of the back of the plane was empty and the Mrs and I got a row to ourselves.

    Premium Econ was packed to the gills, and most spread out into regular coach. I feel bad for them if they paid for it.

  11. Cranky, another great article. Sorry to see them fading away. According to Aviation Week and Flight International, the replacement, at least for several of the routes, will be newly delivered 777-300’s.

    1. George (and others who mentioned this) – Yes indeed, the 777-300ERs will be replacements for some of the capacity, but those airplanes were already coming on the property when the 747s weren’t going to be retired until next year. So now, the delivery plans don’t seem to be changing, but the 747s will go out earlier.

  12. Best 747 experience. Booked Virgin Atlantic ORD to LGW. Was on coach. Worked very hard to get an aisle bulkhead at the front of the cabin. When I arrived at my seat, someone else was in it. We both had the same seat on our bording passes! Called flight attendant. She wanted to put me in the middle of the middle in the second to the last row. Obviously, unacceptable. She said wait here, she will see what she can do. Waited. Waited, wondering what would happen. Then she said come with me. We started walking forward (always a good sign). Walked through business class, and then started climbing stairs to upper class! First words I heard was a question when I would like to schedule my massage! Jackpot.

  13. I remember being in a CRJ-200 and the seats were so plush and large. It’s going to be a sad day when CRJ’s are retired next month. I’ve been flying on them since I was 24.

  14. 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.
    Actually Shanghai has already been swapped out. United now has two daily services SFO-PVG and they’re flying them with 787 Dreamliners. For the other routes there are the fourteen 777-300ERs coming into service which can be used for the high capacity routes.

    But you’ve hit the nail on the head. The 747s look wonderful from the outside, but unless you’re in Global First or on the upper deck the flying experience is garbage.

    1. One of the two SFO-PVG flights will actually be going back to a 747. UA857/858 equipment is going from 789 to 747. First day I see this in the GDS is March 9th. Looks like Oct 5th is when it goes back to 789. At some point the other PVG flight goes from 789 to 788 but not sure what date. Just noticed it shows 788 by Oct 5th.

  15. Okay, another nostalgia comment:

    I remember flying a Peoplexpress 747 from (I think) Newark to Brussels when I was 14. They had the cash register carts rolling down the aisles to collect the fares, even for transatlantic flights.

    I remember being surprised to hear that the captain was a woman, and her name–Beverly Burns–stuck in my head. A couple of years ago I looked up the name, and it turns out that she was the first woman rated for the 747.

  16. Currently sitting at the gate at sfo, waiting to board a 747 to Tokyo. New it might be my last chance to fly, so went out of my way to book, but now dreading the next 10 hours sitting in Y

  17. I’ll miss the “Queen of the Skies” which I quite frequently fly in and out of SFO on United to international destinations. That having been said, that isn’t an aircraft or at least an aircraft in United’s configuration of same that you want to be stuck either in steerage (including E+) or the middle seats in business class. Furthermore, despite efforts by United in the last two years to improve the servicing and reliability of these aircraft, the operational problems have been mounting. My last two FRA to SFO flights on United 747 aircraft were both plagued by long delays in FRA in order to “fix” problems serious enough to prevent safe flight back to SFO.

    One of the challenges is that in replacing the remaining 20 747 aircraft, there aren’t really enough other aircraft available in the fleet. The SFO / HKG roundtrip currently being served by the 747 is being moved to the first two 777-300ER aircraft recently delivered to United. (In fact, as configured by United with 10-across steerage seating, the 777-300ER has a capacity – 366 204/102/60 – not much lower than United’s 747-400 capacity – 374 240/70/52/12!) However, there are only 14 additional 777-300ER aircraft on order, all to be delivered by end of 2017. Each 747 route requires at least two aircraft for round trip service. This leaves a deficit of between 4 to 6 high capacity aircraft. The only other new aircraft expected for delivery in 2017 are four 787-9 aircraft with considerably lower capacities – 252 116/88/48. United doesn’t even have a date for delivery of the A350 fleet!

    And it isn’t as if United has a surplus of other international wide-body aircraft that can be used to substitute for the 747s. And it isn’t as if the pmUA 777-200 fleet is particularly great. The business class seating is just as poor as that on the 747 fleet.

    What is nice is that the 777-300ER will have the new “Polaris” business class hard product, i.e., the new seating that is much closer to or even better than what United previously had in first class on the 747. The A350 fleet will have this seating as well, when they arrive in several years. However, it will be a number of years before any of that new seating makes it to the rest of United’s international fleet (doubt whether any of the 767 or many of the 777-200 fleet will get the upgrade).

    It is likely that in the meantime, international travelers on United can expect higher load factors due to the capacity reduction along with even fewer GPU or even miles+$$$ upgrades.

    1. “However, there are only 14 additional 777-300ER aircraft on order, all to be delivered by end of 2017. …….. United doesn’t even have a date for delivery of the A350 fleet!”
      Dov, the fourteen 77Ws are all expected t be delivered by mid-May. And though the fleet will be stretched thin until the A350s and 787-10s start arriving (May 2018) fourteen 77Ws should cover the high capacity routes needed to replace the 747s. Not all the current 747 routes need that capacity. SFO-TPE and SFO-ICN were 787-9 until fall last year. Those 789s were taken to fly the two SFO-PVG routes.

      What will likely happen with the fleet stretched is that the Polaris reconfigurations of the 772s get delayed, so dorm room business class for a while longer.

      Anyway, Scott Kirby is doing (or presumably has just finished) an analysis of UA’s long haul order book, and there may well be further order conversions. It would make sense to take more 77Ws and make that the high capacity plane, and then convert the A350-1000s to A359s to balance things out. The CFO has already hinted at converting the Airbus orders.

  18. “The worst passenger experience in the entire fleet?” No, that onion goes to back-of-the-bus on the new configuration for domestic 777-200s, with the 747’s 3-4-3 seating in a significantly narrower cabin. In Y+ it’s a step below a CRJ-100/200; in Y- I can only imagine that it’s akin to having your limbs broken so you can be packed into a CRJ’s overhead bin. If the 777-300ER has the same seats then I’ll be flying another airline unless I know I can upgrade.

  19. I flew dozens of times in business class upstairs on these venerable aircraft and once up front in Global First; I liked upstairs for the relative privacy compared to downstairs and the quiet, and will miss it. But I also went coach several times and after one particularly bad flight never did it again. Yes, it’s time to retire these ladies and I’ll wait to see the hard Polaris product to see how cosy that is. If it’s like Singapore business class then it will be fine.

  20. Flew Delta 747 from PVG upstair in business. Boy, that was the best IMO from US carrier. Really did feel like a private jet.

  21. Many many years ago, when I was 14, my parents let me spend the summer with my brother, living overseas. It was the first time I flew alone, and it was 6000 miles on two different UA 747s. I was in awe of the plane. I flew that route on those planes a dozen times over the years until they were replaced by 767s, 777s and Airbuses. I’ll never forget my disappointment the first time I discovered my beloved 747 had been swapped out for a 767.

    Even though United has pretty much destroyed the 747 experience (along with everything else they once did well), few things can match the thrill of an adolescent on his first global journey on the grandest jetliner in the skies. No other plane has ever come close.

  22. So sad to see any airliner sent off to a graveyard, or wherever. Even one of Lake Central’s last DC-3, but the 747, now that’s an aircraft. I still get to see an LH 747 right over my house, downwind on days landing north here at IAD. What a beautiful aircraft!

    Early on with UA’s 747s, landings always seemed a bit hard, like when those wheels hit, you thought everything above you was going to fall down. A couple a oxygen masks would drop, but we walked away, OK! Maybe this still happens?

    A number of years back, going to Australia, on making that short final tag-on leg, Sydney to Melbourne, the pilot announced we would be checking out the hands-off procedures for landing the plane. Well, I don’t think I ever experiences a harder landing. Of course, the pilot, as they are so good at doing, said: “Well, a little more work, I guess!” A 747 pilot…what a wonderful legacy!

    I was surprised the other day (Dec. 26) seeing on A*Net a UA 744 (UA2254) making the 95-mile trip from Dulles to Harrisburg, and wondering if maybe something was amiss. Just the ferry leg for a Penn State charter to the Rose Bowl, I was told.

    Surely, the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum folks can get UA to pull one of those remaining 747s across the Dulles field for display at the Center alongside a Concorde, the Challenger, and the Enola Gay.

  23. Best seat in the DL fleet, ever, is upstairs in the 747. Fourteen seats, two lavs, two FAs. It is literally like flying a private jet. Go fly it before it is gone.

  24. CRJ200, 10 across 777 in economy and 787 in economy all have less personal space in UA config. And 8 across in 777-200 business is worse for me than 747 too.

    And I like 4 engines.

  25. I like four engines too, with good reason. Many of us who have worked in commercial aviation for the last 45 years have made a point of avoiding United, period, throughout that time. What United has allowed to happen to its 747 fleet is very sad, but it was, unfortunately, predictable. While I would not fly on a United 747 as a passenger, I enjoy watching any 747 taking off, landing or taxiing. It is the most glorious commercial passenger jet aircraft ever.

  26. The 747 has been a big part of the United fleet since the very early ’70s and it will be strange to not see it a part of the fleet. I remember my first 747 ride…DTW-ORD in June, 1978…got to visit the flight deck at ORD and noticed the upper deck was still set up as a lounge.

  27. The 747 is not the most awful plane in United’s fleet.
    The 777 with 10-across seating is the most awful plane in United’s — or anybody’s — fleet.
    Cramming 10 seats across in a plane narrower than the 747 is the worst intercontinental torture chamber yet.

  28. Good. I’m excited for the new generation of aircraft which have an all round better experience than these old birds. The 747 is amazing, but it’s old world and needs to disappear.

    If only BA would phase them out as soon as United….

  29. I, too, and sad to see them go in theory but glad in reality. Like you, I’ve had good trips in premium (the old First Class from SFO and LAX to LHR in the early 2000s and the upper deck later in the decade) but I avoided UA economy class in the 747 at all costs. Stuck in the 80s, it was

    Ed F – London

  30. I was just on a Lufthansa 748i (D-ABYD, a plane I’ve flown 14 times now, it turns out) the other day from FRA-IAD. I’d never done Business Class upstairs, any of the times I’ve flown it. And wow! What a difference it makes. Just wonderful.

  31. You nailed it. I cringed at your title, I love the 747 and I am overwhelmed with irritating United 747 memories, even in premium cabins.
    There were countless broken reading lights for ocean crossings in the dark, the many missing windows in Economy Plus, the upgrade into a broken business class seat, the stinking flooded lavs, the inconvenient upstairs overhead bin substitutes and the disorientation of flying backwards for most of my upgraded seats. What idiot put Economy Plus in an area missing almost half its windows? I once sat overseas on a United 747, with young family members along, for three hours on the ground while mechanics dithered over what to do; they had to specially call back ground staff to handle us, which they did glacially, getting us to our destination on another airline seven hours late, in good weather, for an hour flight. I landed a stack of “I’m sorry” coupons so large, my spending could never keep up. If anything, it seems like United never had their hearts in their 747s. It’s sad, because there’s just no matching the grandeur of a ride in this queen of the skies. The successors are fine aircraft, but the romance is gone and I’ll miss my Economy Minus panorama lounge, row 59, near the tail, where the aircraft narrows, giving extra seat-side storage, like upstairs, as well as three windows for this magical row. I used to abandon my upgraded seat for the Sydney to Melbourne tags to enjoy the glorious mountain scenery from 59B. As you say, this retirement is both sad and overdue, no reflection on Boeing.

  32. The first time I flew a UA 747-400 was from NRT to JFK, in 1997 and at the time, the plane was about a year old. It was fine, though nothing to brag about. Fast forward to 2014, and I flew LAX-SYD on the 747 and the cabin interior, despite the 2007 era business class seat and the new seat coverings in Economy, was essentially, the same aircraft. Pre-merger United postponed maintenance on its jets until it became critical. No other US airline has as many operational issues related to its fleet. This is the core of United’s customer service problems. I’ll miss the 747, but the plane is old, outdated, and in United’s case, neglected.

  33. Actually one thing I’ll miss when the 747 goes out of service are all those $300 “we’re sorry and we appreciate your loyalty” certificates I’ve gotten over the last few years due to 3+ hour delays, broken seats, and non-functioning entertainment systems on 747 SFOFRA flights!

    Those certificates paid for approximately $900 of personal travel for me over the last two years.


  34. A lay-flat seat on the upper deck of a 747 is the best (non suite) ride of any commercial airplane. Sorry to see it go and hope to be on UA’s last flight in that cabin.

  35. Any “full-service” airline thinking they can get away with flying long-haul without personal screens in 2017 is just a joke, in my opinion. With my living in AKL, there are so many better airlines available to me than , the American flag carriers. If I’m flying to the US in Economy class (as I’m an infrequent flyer, and can never afford Business), give me NZ or QF or even FJ or TN over UA any day. AA isn’t much better. Good riddance UA B747s.

    1. FWIW, the trend of at least US domestic carriers, especially Untied Airlines, to replace seat-back screens with a requirement to use “personal devices” with the aircraft’s WIFI is very disturbing. (Untied is doing this on all their domestic fleet with the exception of the pmCO aircraft with DirecTV – at least until the contract with DirecTV ends!)

      To me, it is a royal pain in the tuchas to (1) have to bring a tablet device (phone screens are too small for any meaningful video) on board, (2) find space to put and/or hold the device in cramped confines of typical steerage seats (even Untied’s E+ or up front in FC), and (3) avoid spilling drinks, food, whatever on a very expensive toy.

      To make matters worse, given the wonky nature of many of the aircraft’s internal WIFI networks, such WIFI-based entertainment is often problematic in terms of working properly. And even worse than that, in order to conserve the WIFI bandwidth, the airlines and their entertainment providers use fairly lossy compression on the video, resulting in fairly poor quality playback, certainly nothing even close to HD and sometimes not even as good as old SD (standard definition).

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