As anyone who happens to be flying to or through Atlanta this week knows, it has not been a good week for Delta. The Sunday power outage in Atlanta forced airlines to cancel hundreds of flights and put holiday travel plans in limbo. Since it was an Atlanta problem, Delta was naturally hit hardest. (If you know a Delta employee in Atlanta, they need a hug.) But hidden beneath those bitter headlines this week is a bittersweet milestone. Today, Delta’s last scheduled 747 flight is heading to Detroit from Seoul/Incheon. The 747 will still be flying around for a bit on charters (and, if I were to hazard a guess, to help recover from the power outage), but the days of booking a scheduled 747 flight on a US-based airline are officially over.
Delta’s goodbye was far more subdued than United’s proper send-off, probably because it wasn’t really Delta that had that long love affair with the airplane. (It was that red-headed stepchild Northwest.) But while many people gave their tributes when United put the 747 out to pasture, I decided to wait until it was truly gone for good from scheduled service on US airlines. In the meantime, I took a look back through the archives at all the 747 flights I’ve taken. I can weave together a tapestry of many parts of my life through experiences on that airplane. As airline news starts to wind down for the holidays, I thought I’d take you along on my admittedly entirely self-indulgent look back.
Though I didn’t start writing down every flight I took until 1994, there were several 747 flights before that point which I remember vividly. The first was back in the summer of 1985. My parents took us on my first trip to Europe just before I turned 8. We took an SAS DC-10 to Copenhagen, but on the return from London to LA, our chariot was a British Airways 747 (-200, I’m guessing). I don’t remember much from that flight, but I do remember boarding the airplane and thinking it was just so massive. Here I was, a 7-year-old fresh off an eye-opening swing through Europe, in a sea of coach seats.
While flying British Airways was exciting, there’s nothing quite like flying a Pan Am 747. That first happened for me in 1989. After Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, the airline was in dire shape. It threw low fares out there to try to attract anyone to fill those cavernous 747s, and we gladly took advantage. The summer of 1989 found us on 747s from LA to Zurich and back via JFK. I remember little about those flights, but the same can’t be said for my next (and last) Pan Am adventure.
We had to go back to Europe for a wedding the following summer, and Pan Am was again our chosen instrument. On the return, we flew the 747 back from London to LA. This trip was special. I remember that Pan Am had a promotion at the time where if you spent a couple hundred dollars at the Sharper Image (we bought a table hockey game), you could get really cheap upgrade certificates on any flight over $800. This trip was just over that threshold, and we flew business the entire way. I seem to recall that we were even upstairs on that flight home.
It was 1993 when I had my first 747-400 ride, and that was purely by accident. I was traveling overseas with a student group called People to People. On the return, I rode on my first A320 from Moscow to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. We were all supposed to take an A340 to New York before heading home, but our group leaders had somehow failed to reconfirm our reservations in advance. (Remember when that was a thing?) The reservations had all been canceled. Most people were put back on the flight, and a handful were upgraded to Business. But once it was filled up, there were 3 of us left stranded. The next thing I know, I was handed a boarding pass for a Business Class seat on the nonstop 747-400 flight back to LA. (Side note: It took another decade before I actually flew on an A340.)
After that, it was quite a drought. It wasn’t until a trip to Brazil during college in 1998/1999 that I was able to log a slew of new 747s. At the time, Japan Airlines flew Tokyo-LA-Sao Paulo, and you could get the LA-Sao Paulo flight for cheap. So we did. That was on a 747-300 both ways, and I distinctly remember visiting the cockpit on both legs. On the return, the American pilots were very friendly and let me stay for a long time in the middle of the night. In Brazil, we had another 747-300 experience going from Sao Paulo to Manaus and back on Varig. These were combi airplanes, I believe, and they brought a bunch of cargo up to the Amazon. I was in the cockpit on both those flights as well. On the way in to Manaus, there was a massive rainstorm halfway down the runway. That photo is long lost now, but I showed it to a pilot friend many years ago and he said we never should have landed. If we had to go around, we would have had to fly right into the thick of it.
In 2002, I was just starting business school, and Concorde was entering its twilight. British Airways had some incredible deals that employees of the company could give to their friends, and I was able to take advantage. On the way out, I flew BA from LA to London on the upper deck of a 747-400. For some reason, the departure in a driving rainstorm is something I remember clearly, but for once, the 747 was not the star of the show. The only thing that could upstage a 747 was Concorde flying me home.
The next time I flew a 747 was a very different experience. In 2003, I went to visit a friend in Africa. I used my Delta SkyMiles to fly on then-partner South African. At the time, the airline had 747-400s flying from Atlanta to Jo’burg nonstop with the return having to stop in the Cape Verde Islands for fuel. That return path meant I’d have two 8 hour flights without getting off the airplane in between. That remains the longest I’ve ever been on a single plane… and it was in coach. But here’s the thing. South African put coach on the upper deck of its 747s. I had a window, which meant I had that little shelf/storage compartment against the wall to stretch out. I believe pitch was 34 inches as well, so it was quite the comfy ride.
One of my favorite 747 trips was in 2007 when my wife and I had used miles to fly in coach over to Europe. The return was on an Air New Zealand 747, and a friend had somehow arranged for us to be upgraded if seats were available. Sure enough, we checked in at Heathrow and were given boarding passes for row 1. That was my first time sitting in the nose, and it was surreal being able to almost look forward out the window. I do remember never wanting that flight to end.
In 2010, it was time to fly Air New Zealand again. The airline invited me down to Auckland to see the unveiling of its new onboard experience for the 777-300ER. At the time, 747s were still operating most of the airline’s long-haul routes, and I flew in Business both ways.
Later that year, we were in for yet another unexpected treat. My wife and I were in Indy with the in-laws for the holidays and had used miles to come home in First Class via Chicago. There had been bad storms during the days leading up to our flight, and United has pressed its charter 747 into service to get people on their way. We were treated to Business Class on that old bird – these were the recliners and there were even still projector screens.
In 2011, Lufthansa invited me to its A380 inaugural on the Frankfurt-San Francisco route. To get there, I had to take a 747-400 from LA. I remember being giddy at being in row 1 on this flight as well. While I really enjoyed my first scheduled A380 flight on the return, I remember wishing I was back on the 747. I was clearly addicted.
My most recent 747 flight, incredibly, was 5 years ago. Back in 2012, British Airways invited me out to the London Olympics. I tried the new premium economy cabin on the 777-300ER on the way out, and I was expecting to return in Business on the 747-400. I found that the airline graciously upgraded me to First Class so I could experience something different. I was again in row 1.
It’s sad for me to think that my options to get on another 747 are dwindling. I imagine Air China, Korean, Lufthansa, and British Airways will still have them flying for many years to come, but it’s getting much tougher to find. I’m hopeful that I’ll find a good reason to take my son on one before they disappear. At least on Thursday, he’ll get to walk around one when Delta brings a 747 to LA for people to tour. That, strangely enough, will be my first time on a Delta or Northwest 747. I wish it weren’t the last.
Now let’s hear your stories.