The Queen of the Skies

by John Delach

British Airways’ (BA) announcement in mid-July stunned aviation enthusiasts: “It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect. It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for BA again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic.”

And that’s that and so it goes. BA was the largest operator with 31 747-400s  remaining in its airliner inventory. Sure, we enthusiasts knew the end of service life for the first and the most successful of the jumbo jets was drawing to a close. BA had previously revealed that they would phase out their 747s over the next five years, but five years is five years away.     

British Airways’ predecessor, British Overseas Airways Corporation or BOAC acquired their first Boeing-747-100 in 1970 and this airplane made its first commercial flight on April 14, 1971.

Boeing  designed the jumbo to meet the wishes of, Juan Trippe, the founder and CEO of Pan American World Airways. Trippe demanded an airliner 2 ½ times the size of the 707, Boeings first successful jet airliner that entered service in 1958. Pan Am ordered 25 airplanes and took delivery of their first 747, the Clipper Young America on January 22, 1970.

Since 1969, the first year of production, Boeing has built 1,556 747s with 16 on order or under construction. The last of those 747-8 freighters is expected to roll off the production line from their Everett, Washington plant in the next two years.

Boeing 747’s remained in demand with airlines and frequent fliers for almost forty years. Following the demise of the supersonic Concorde, their popularity with elite transatlantic travelers soared. No airplane could fly higher or faster and the 747’s size allowed the airlines to outfit their First Class and Business Class cabins with luxurious features. 

One of the first indications that the 747’s tide was ebbing was the great tragedy on September 11, 2001. Another was the direct competition from the introduction of the Airbus A380, the first jumbo passenger plane to surpass the 747 in both size and superlatives.

(Curiously, the A380 would fall victim to the same forces that doomed the 747. Airbus has announced that it will close the A-380 production line in 2021 because of a dearth of orders even before the virus struck. Only 250 will be built making this jumbo a financial disaster.)

Demand for the 747 shrank as newer and more efficient two-engine jumbo jets like Boeing’s own 777 entered service. These aircraft that could provide similar luxury while being cost-efficient.

Domestic flights ended early in 2018 when a veteran crew flew Delta Airlines’ last active 747 from Atlanta to the airplane boneyard in Marana, Arizona.  

Covid-19 landed the knock-out blow. BA was not alone in retiring their fleet. Virgin Atlantic retired their 747s on April 10, 2020. There stated reason: the pandemic. Covid-19 has decimated world-wide air traffic reducing these airlines financial situations to dire.

Lufthansa retired its 747-400s. Only their six 8Fs remain.

The last chapter for the 747 is being written at Boeing’s San Antonio facility. Two 747-8F have been delivered to the United States Air Force for conversion into VC-25B transports better known as Air Force One. Boeing built these airplanes for Volga-Dnept, a Russian company that subsequently tanked. Uncle bought them and their conversion is under way with the first delivery expected in 2024.

Since their service life is expected to be at least 30 years, they will still be flying at a minimum of five years short of the Queen of the Sky’s 100th anniversary!


On the Outside Looking In will not publish for the next two weeks. I hope to  reveal an intense piece comparing the on-going turmoil of this summer to our discontent to that of 1970.