Last updated: 01:00 PM ET, Tue January 19 2016

Iconic 747s Disappearing from the Skies

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 19, 2016

Iconic 747s Disappearing from the Skies

Photo courtesy of Air France

Boeing 747s were, until the arrival of the Airbus A380 in the mid-2000s, the largest commercial planes in the sky. To this day, the airliners, often referred to over the years as “jumbo jets,” hold the record for the most people ever carried in a commercial plane. According to CNN, an El Al flight carried more than 1,080 Jewish refugees from Ethiopia to Israel in 1991. 

Now, other planes are crowding into the “jumbo jet” category. They are more efficient, more modern and more comfortable (though certainly less iconic) than the 747. 

A mass retirement has begun

Airlines are beginning to phase this aging airliner out of their fleets. Last September, Delta retired the first 747-400 ever built for a commercial carrier. It had logged approximately 61 million miles by the time it landed for the final time. The plane, known as Ship 6301, will be placed in the Delta Flight Museum this year. 

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All across the world, other 747s are slated to become museum pieces in the next couple of years. All of Delta’s 747s will be put out to pasture by the end of 2017. Air France is in the process of retiring the aircraft, which has earned a number of nicknames over the last four decades. The  747 was often referred to as the “Queen of the Sky” by passengers and “the Whale” by the pilots who had to learn how to fly them. 

Because their size allowed them to outlast many of their early-jet-age peers, 747s are among the last planes that pilots actually have to fly (as opposed to monitoring computer systems that make the maneuvers for them). 

High demand for “last flights”

Both pilots and passengers respected the 747. When Air France announced that it was retiring the planes, so many people wanted to be on the “last flight” that the French carrier decided to have several “last flights,” each with commemorative tickets and a water cannon salute from the airport fire department upon landing.    

Airlines favoring more versatile aircraft

A few airlines are still ordering the most up-to-date version of the 747, the 747-8i, but most are opting for planes with different qualities. Aircraft like the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 are a bit smaller, but they have a similar range and are much more fuel efficient. They can be used for both long-haul and mid-range flights, giving airlines a lot more flexibility to change routes and services as needed. This kind of versatility is favored because fuel prices and passenger demand will fluctuate widely over the life span of an airliner. The 747, despite its romantic image, can be just one thing: big. 

READ MORE: New Air Force One Will Be A 747-8

For younger fliers and pilots, the new “Queens of the Sky” are the A380 and Dreamliner, not the 747. 

When Delta announced that it was phasing out its 747s, the general manager of Boeing’s 747 program admitted to USA Today that interest in the aircraft was waning, but he also said that the jumbo jet’s newest incarnation, the 747-8, was still getting orders. There is “enough [demand] that we're going to sit here today and say we expect we're going to be building the 747-8 for quite a bit longer." 

For many, though, the mass retirement of pre-computerized models like the 747-400 signal the end of an era that many people will remember fondly. 


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