Queen of the Skies prepares for US network abdication

After five decades and over 45 years flying variants of the Boeing 747 since the type’s debut in United Airlines operation on flights between California and Hawaii in 1970, the carrier says new technology, and notably the arrival of the 777-300ER into its fleet means now is the right time to retire the iconic airliner.

United Airlines will follow its US major rival Delta Air Lines in removing the Boeing 747 from commercial service during the final quarter of 2017 after bring forward its retirement plans for the aircraft by around a year. This will mean that at the end of this year there will no longer be jumbo jets operating on scheduled services with US airlines.

After five decades and over 45 years flying variants of the Boeing 747 since the type’s debut in United Airlines operation on flights between California and Hawaii in 1970, the carrier says new technology, and notably the arrival of the 777-300ER into its fleet means now is the right time to retire the iconic airliner.

“There's something very special about a Boeing 747. It's the one aircraft that even casual travellers can easily identify,” said Scott Kirby, president, United Airlines. “As deeply connected as we all are to this iconic aircraft, the time has come to retire our 747 fleet from scheduled service.”

In an internal letter to employees, Kirby described the action as “a bittersweet milestone” and said the jumbo jet and its unmistakable silhouette “once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel”. However, with “more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated inflight experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights,” he noted that the accelerated plan was right for the airline and its customers.

United had originally planned to continue flying its remaining 747-400s until October 2018. It currently utilises the aircraft on routes from its San Francisco International Airport hub with schedules showing planned deployment this summer to Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London Heathrow, Seoul Incheon, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo Narita, according to OAG Schedules Analyser data.

The US carrier configures its 747-400s in a 374-seat arrangement and will replace them with the similarly-sized 777-300ER, which seats 366 in the airline’s configuration. United took delivery of its first examples in late 2016 and will grow its fleet by a further 12 units to 14 aircraft before the end of 2017. The 777-300ER will enter scheduled long-haul service this summer, initially on the San Francisco – Hong Kong route from the end of March 2017.

United has not yet confirmed its exact retirement plans for the 747-400, but confirmed it will honour the 747 “with an unforgettable retirement celebration”. Its inventory still shows the aircraft on scheduled operation through to the end of February 2018, but this will be updated as soon as its retirement plan is formalised.

Delta Air Lines, the only other scheduled operator of the 747 in North America, is also finalising its own retirement plans for the type as it modifies in Pacific network around the operation of more efficient twin-engine airliners. Like United, it launched flights with early variants of the 747 in 1970 and relaunched operations with the type after inheriting Northwest Airlines’ fleet of 747-400s following the merger of the airlines in the second half of the 2000s.

The carrier has already reduced its fleet from 30 747s to just seven 747-400s and removed the aircraft from operation at Atlanta, Minneapolis/St Paul and Seattle over the last year. The summer it will use the 747-400 on flights from Detroit to Seoul Incheon, Shanghai and Tokyo Narita and between Honolulu and Osaka and Tokyo Narita.

"We are restructuring our Pacific fleet by removing less efficient B747-400 aircraft and replacing them with smaller-gauge, widebody aircraft to better match capacity with demand," it said in a regulatory filing last August confirming its intent to remove the type from its system.

Although Boeing continues to produce the 747, only Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa have signed up to the 747-8I Intercontinental, the passenger version of its final stretch of the aircraft, and just 36 are in service. As more efficient twin-engined aircraft such as the A350, 787 and new 777X enter commercial service, more airlines will drop the popular 747 from operation. In fact many of the most famous operators of the type such as Air Canada, Air France, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines have already retired the jumbo jet.

A closer look at OAG data for the 747 shows the significant decline in 747 operations over the past ten years. Since 2007 global 747 scheduled passenger capacity has fallen from 121 million seats to just 42 million last year and is forecasted to decline to under 37 million in 2017, based on published schedules. The decline in 747 activity at the world’s airlines has seen year-on-year capacity declines every year during this period: the largest taking place in 2016 when year-on-year capacity fell 16.7 per cent.

Lufthansa, one of the few operators of the new 747-8I, is the largest user of the 747 in terms of scheduled capacity and bucking the industry trend has actually grown its 747 network capacity for four consecutive years. Published schedules suggest a further 1.7 per cent rise in 747 capacity in 2017, growing its share of 747 capacity to 14.8 per cent this year.

According to the flight schedules, both Aeroflot Russian Airlines and SonAir became new operators of the 747 in 2016. The Russian flag carrier acquired some former Transaero Airlines equipment for its expanded Rossiya Airlines operation, while Son Air is using the aircraft on flights between Luanda and Houston.


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