It’s the End of an Era as the Boeing 747 ‘Queen of the Skies’ Retires


United Boeing 747 retires

The reign of the Queen of the Skies is about to end. United Airlines’ final flight of the Boeing 747 will occur on November 7, recreating the historic 1970 San Francisco-to-Honolulu flight that was its first commercial jaunt for the 747.

The throwback “Friend Ship” flight (which sold out in less than two hours) will include a 1970s-inspired menu, retro uniforms for flight attendants and in-flight entertainment befitting of that first flight. Seats in the plane’s upper deck will remain unsold, so everyone can visit the space during the flight.

United Boeing 747

The occasion recalls a time when flying itself was an occasion, when passengers dressed up and travel was a bigger deal than it is today. Other carriers have also been retiring their last 747s, such as Qantas, which flew its last voyage in July, and Delta, which made its final 747 runs last month, with a slight change of plans.

Delta operated its final Boeing 747 flight from Tokyo to Honolulu on September 5th and then operated what it thought to be its final domestic 747 flight, from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Detroit.

But the airline subsequently used two 747s on Orlando evacuation flights as Hurricane Irma approached last month, helping evacuate people from San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of dangerous winds caused by Irma’s approach.

It’s yet another story that will go down in the pantheon of 747 history. As Boeing describes the 747:

The 747 was the result of the work of some 50,000 Boeing people. Called “the Incredibles,” these were the construction workers, mechanics, engineers, secretaries and administrators who made aviation history by building the 747 — the largest civilian airplane in the world — in less than 16 months during the late 1960s. … 

The 747 was truly monumental in size. The massive airplane required construction of the 200 million-cubic-foot (5.6 million-cubic-meter) 747 assembly plant in Everett, Wash., the world’s largest building (by volume). The fuselage of the original 747 was 225 feet (68.5 meters) long; the tail as tall as a six-story building. Pressurized, it carried a ton of air. The cargo hold had room for 3,400 pieces of baggage and could be unloaded in seven minutes. The total wing area was larger than a basketball court. Yet, the entire global navigation system weighed less than a modern laptop computer. …

On June 28, 2014, Boeing delivered the 1,500th 747 to come off the production line to Frankfurt, Germany-based Lufthansa. The 747 is the first wide-body airplane in history to reach the 1,500 milestone.

And while the pangs of nostalgia will be tremendous as the last 747 flight glides over the Pacific Ocean, United plans to make the most of the situation for its brand. There will be a “throwback” theme for the flight, featuring 1970s-era retro uniforms for the crew and menu options that are “inspired” by the era. Even in-flight entertainment options will hail from the Seventies.

That vibe, United said, “will help send the Queen of the Skies off in true style.”

Delta’s post-747 plans speak to a big reason for the big bird’s retirement. As CNN notes:

Delta Air Lines will officially retire its jumbo Boeing 747 fleet in December. Later that same month, the airline will pass the baton to a smaller, twin-aisle Airbus A350 XWB. Delta  is the first U.S. airline to bring the new Airbus jet into operation. And with the arrival of the A350, Delta is overhauling its long-haul business class, introducing premium economy and new economy class seats. In fact, the airplane was built around the seat. Delta picked the design for ‘Delta One’ even before it had purchased the A350 when it was still deciding if it wanted Boeing or Airbus jets for its flights to Asia. The business class seat features a first for a U.S. airline – a fully closing door.

The 747, of course, is one of the best-known passenger planes in history, remarkable not only for its size and capacity but also for its upper-deck lounge and seating. In fact, to honor that distincion, United’s last flight will limit seating on the top deck so that all onboard the farewell flight “have the opportunity to spend time in this iconic space.”

“With all the new planes we have, (the 747) is getting somewhat outdated,” United Captain David Smith told USA Today after a special one-time flight by United in July from Chicago O’Hare to San Francisco, which was announced with just two days’ notice. “The airplane has a lot of loyalty to it, not just from the passengers, but from the pilots. We love flying this thing, and we’re going to miss it dearly.”

United even made a farewell video tribute (above) to the wide-bodied 747, which made a big mark on the airline industry for its luxury and spaciousness, easily outlasting another bird with huge impact, the supersonic Concorde, which entered service in the 1970s as well but stopped flying its transatlantic route in 2003.

Delta operated its final Boeing 747 flight from Tokyo to Honolulu on September 5 and then operated what was thought to be its final domestic 747 flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Detroit. But then Delta subsequently used two 747s on Orlando evacuation flights as Hurricane Irma approached last month.

Better fuel efficiency in new planes and the financial challenges to the airline industry helped spell the demise of 747 passenger planes. Now Boeing will squeeze a few more years from the 747 as a cargo plane, as airlines turn to other planes such as the new 787 Dreamliner to ferry passengers

Case in point: Qantas is talking up its first 787 and how it will benefit travelers, while Air India and Singapore Air are excited about their shiny new 787s. Beautiful birds, yes, but not quite as heart-thumping as the 747 was back when it made its debut and wowed travelers.