Another Boeing 747 obituary.
Following on from Virgin Atlantic announcing their withdrawal back in May, British Airways sent out the following email to their staff late on 16th July 2020:
Dear colleagueBritish Airways
With much regret, we are proposing, subject to consultation, the immediate retirement of our Queen of the Skies, the 747-400. We know there is speculation on social media and aviation websites, so we wanted to make our position clear.
The whole airline community is reconciling itself to a bleak outlook for passenger demand. Long haul travel will take years to recover, with the major industry bodies agreeing that we will not see a return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the soonest. The bulk of our fleet is large, wide-bodied, long haul aircraft with many premium seats, intended to carry high volumes of customers. The unofficial flagship of our fleet, the 747-400 has a very special place in the hearts of aviation enthusiasts and of many of us. We know how many memories of this extra-special aircraft are shared across the BA family and our proposal to retire the fleet early has only been taken in response to the crisis we find ourselves in.
When many people think of BA today, they think of our Jumbos connecting Britain with the world, and the world with Britain. They are true icons. We love the Queen of the Skies and have operated them since 1971. We took our first 747-400 (technically the 747-436) registration G-BNLC in July 1989, and our newest was delivered to us in April 1999. There’s a great archive video about the aircraft here.
Most of our 747s are already due for retirement progressively by early 2024, and we recently refreshed the interiors of a number of them with the intention of a good few remaining years in service. They are an airliner of another era, however, and they burn far more fuel than the latest generation of planes and, logically, require more frequent and detailed attention from our engineering team. They rely on high passenger load factors and high premium demand to make them commercially viable. In short, we do not believe that these beautiful aircraft are sustainable in a very different airline industry. Subject to proper consultation, their early retirement would be accelerated over the coming months, and we would not expect any more commercial flights to be flown.
The proposal to retire the entire fleet of these iconic aircraft is nothing short of heart breaking for those of us that grew up watching them fly all over the world.
Your Management Committee
First off, despite the airline stating more than a few times in the message that it was a proposal, lets be realistic. The airline wouldn’t have sent this out if they had the intention of keeping hold of the aircraft. Much less so stating that it was to be an immediate retirement.
With the type likely to have been in service for only a few more years anyway, the end was near regardless. With Willie Walsh, head of IAG stating many times over the past months that he didn’t expect the aviation industry to recover until 2023 at the earliest, there was always going to be a question mark over the Boeing 747 fleet remaining in service.
Indeed, just under a month ago, it emerged that all training and recency for crew on the type had been suspended. At the time, I was hopeful that it would be a case of most of the fleet would be retired and a handful would remain. However it would appear my hope was very short lived.
British Airways has a very long history with the Boeing 747. The first aircraft was delivered to the airlines predecessor, BOAC, in June 1970. The airline put its new acquisition to use on the London Heathrow – New York JFK route, where it remained and almost iconic sight at the New York airport right up until early 2020.
The initial deliveries to BOAC were the first 747-100 variant. There were a total of 19 747-100’s on the airlines books, until the type was retired in 1998. The airline ordered 18 “-136” frames, registered G-AWNA – G-AWNP, along with G-BBPU and G-BBPV. Later, another frame G-BDPZ was leased from Aer Lingus on and off between 1976 and 1981. That year saw a pair of native British Airways -100’s (G-AWNI/G-AWNK) leave the fleet, to head across the Atlantic in order to operate for TWA.
The remainder of the fleet remained, with the exception of G-AWND which was written off in 1991.
The 747-100 was distinctive due to having just the three windows on the upper deck. However, British Airways later modified their aircraft to feature the same number of windows on the upper deck as the improved 747-200. Which leads us on nicely…
The Next Generation
By 1977, BOAC and BEA had merged to form British Airways. And this was when the next generation 747-200 entered service. As mentioned above, the -200 featured a larger passenger cabin on the upper deck. British Airways would later retrofit this larger upper deck on their older -100 fleet. But more importantly, the newer type featured improved Rolls Royce engines as opposed to the Pratt Whitney units that were fitted to the older frames.
A total of 25 -200 series would be on the books with British Airways. The first, G-BDXC entered the fleet in 1977. The final new build aircraft was to enter service in 1988, which was reasonably new by -200 standards. These remained in service from Heathrow until shortly after 9/11. In the final days, the 747-200’s were operated on flights to the USA for the most part. These aircraft were delivered wearing the famous Landor livery, before adopting the infamous world tails livery in the late 1990’s. However, at least one aircraft (G-BDXB) wore the current livery at the time of its demise. By 2002, the 747-200 had been retired from the British Airways fleet. However, a number found a second home at European Aircharter.
The 747-200 was replaced in the British Airways fleet by the more modern Boeing 777-200ER. The first being delivered in 1996, with a further batch coming online between 2000 and 2009. The later batch of 777’s delivered (G-YMMA-G-YMMU) were fitted with Rolls Royce engines, as opposed to the General Electric power plants that featured on the initial batch (G-VIIA-G-VIIY). More importantly however, was that the second batch of 777’s featured crew rest areas. Therefore they could operate the longer sectors to the Far East and South America.
The Most Recent Additions
Just a year after British Airways took delivery of their final 747-200, the next generation was being delivered. G-BNLA was handed over to the airline in June 1989. Both G-BNLA and sister ship G-BNLC were delivered to Heathrow on the same day at the end of July 1989. A few days later, G-BNLB was delivered from Seattle.
The 747-400 would go on to become the backbone of the British Airways long haul fleet. Whilst most were based at Heathrow, a number also operated from London Gatwick in the late 1990’s. I even vaguely recall there being a scheduled flight from Manchester to Pakistan operated by the 747-400 in the late 1990’s.
And as mentioned in the email above, was the unofficial flagship of the airline. In total, British Airways went on to operate a total of 57 747-400’s, more than any other airline. Although accounting for all variants, British Airways are only second on the overall list. Japan Airlines operated a total of 108 compared to the 94 operated by British Airways.
By the 2010’s, 4 engined aircraft fell out of fashion. The latest twin engined offerings such as the Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A330’s could do the same as the 747, but more efficiently. And with the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 to come online early in the decade, the 747’s days were numbered. The first 747-400 to leave the British Airways fleet, was the first to be delivered. After 19 years in service, G-BNLC left the airline in October 2008, followed by a further three over the next 12 months. The rest of the decade saw most of the initial deliveries head off to be scrapped. Although G-BNLY managed to survive right up until 2020.
The final 747 to be delivered to British Airways was G-BYGG, delivered to the airline in April 1999.
In 2019, British Airways celebrated their 100th birthday. In order to mark the occasion, the airline painted 4 of their aircraft into historic liveries. Being the most iconic aircraft in the fleet, a total of 3 747-400’s (G-BNLY, G-CIVB and G-BYGC) were chosen to wear the Landor, Negus and BOAC liveries. The other aircraft painted into a historic livery was an Airbus A319, sporting the BEA livery.
In addition, a total of 9 747-400’s featured the OneWorld alliance markings. The 747 was the only type in the British Airways fleet to wear these colours. Going forward, this livery will be worn by the Boeing 777-200, with the first originally scheduled to roll out in July 2020. However, it’s probably safe to assume that this will be pushed back for the time being.
My Own Thoughts
Initially, the airline had intended to keep the final 30 in service until 2024. As such, they received a minor cabin refresh towards the end of the 2010’s. This featured new seat coverings, mood lighting and IFE. However, I never got to experience a refurbished 747! The final three flights I took were all on aircraft that were due to head off to the scrap yard. Therefore I had to make do with old seats and malfunctioning IFE. Not the best final impression from a personal point of view!
I had every intention of making at least another trip on the type before they were send off for good. Preferably on the upper deck. I had flown upstairs many times on Virgin Atlantic’s 747 fleet. But not on a British Airways example. In fact, Club World was the only cabin I hadn’t flown in onboard the 747.
I had an extremely uncomfortable overnight flight between London – Kuwait in 2018 down the back. I had a very good first experience of long haul first class in the nose between London – Sao Paulo in 2015. And I made my first major long haul solo trip in World Traveller Plus in 2013.
My final flight came between Miami and London in December 2018. That flight wasn’t too bad from what I recall. I was at the rear of the cabin, so had a guilt free recline. And the middle seat was empty, so had plenty of room to spread out.
Going forward, British Airways long haul flights will be operated by the Boeing 787 series, Boeing 777 series, Airbus A350-1000 and Airbus A380. So theres still a decent amount of variety there from an enthusiasts point of view. But from a general public point of view, none of those will be quite as recognisable as the famous jumbo jet.