Ullstein Bild / WIRED
When the world’s first 747 was unveiled at a Boeing factory in Everett, Washington in September 1968, the fanfare was enormous. More than 50,000 people had worked on the plane’s design, and hundreds more were hired to complete it. One of the first and most eager customers was British Airways (BA), then called the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
The British company bought a dozen of the 747s, with an option to acquire four more, as its first order. The number grew from the first planes the company took receipt of in 1971, and the 747 was a stalwart of the airline for the next 50 years. Before the pandemic struck, the 747 accounted for one in ten of the planes BA flew. But not for much longer.
A planned phase-out of the 747, which was due to happen by 2024, has been brought forward, with significantly less pomp and circumstance than when the aircraft launched. “The 747, being a four-engined, big airplane, wasn’t very economical anyway and was on its way out,” says one current BA pilot, who asked not to be named. “BA, for their centenary, painted a few of them up in the retro liveries they had in the last few years. That was always going to be the last paint job they got.”
An email sent to BA staff late on the evening of July 16 announced the end of the 747 era for BA. “The whole airline community is reconciling itself to a bleak outlook for passenger demand,” the email said. “The bulk of our fleet is large, wide-bodied, long haul aircraft with many premium seats, intended to carry high volumes of customers.” However, high volumes of customers aren’t travelling anymore as the world closes down in fright of the pandemic. The plane had become economical.
The email, pilots think, was sent earlier than expected. “It’s the unwritten rule in the BA handbook to put out bad news on a Friday afternoon,” says the BA pilot. “They did it a bit early.” In the email to staff, BA said its proposal to retire the fleet early had “only been taken in response to the crisis we find ourselves in”. The 747 remained “our Queen of the Skies”, BA added. In all, 31 747s will find their way to the scrap heap, or will be sold on and repurposed to carry cargo, rather than passengers.
“Lots of airlines are now accelerating 747 phase-outs,” explains aviation analyst Brendan Sobie. “It’s a sensible move given the expected huge reduction in demand for long haul travel for at least the next few years. Smaller and more efficient widebody aircraft are the way forward for BA and many other airlines.” On the same day that BA announced it would be halting the use of 747s, the last remaining 747 in the Qantas fleet was making its final flights. The day before, Virgin’s last 747 made a short hop between Manchester and Wales, where it will be dismantled. That follows KLM grounding its passenger 747s pre-pandemic, though it later brought back some to ship personal protective equipment around the world on a temporary basis.
The 747’s time was numbered since Boeing, which manufactures the plane and maintains it, announced last year it would stop producing replacement parts. “Evolutionary-wise, this was bound to happen,” says Robert Mann, an aviation analyst and former vice president at US airlines Pan-Am and TWA. “It was frankly too big an airplane in the 1980s and 1990s in many markets, and it became even more outsized with the arrival of twin-engine planes.”
In the first decade or more of its existence, 747s were the only way to carry large numbers of passengers long distances. Among them was John Strickland, an aviation consultant, who boarded a 747 for the first time on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in 1981, on his way to Seattle. “The scale of the thing when you see it in the sky, you think: ‘My god, how can that thing stay up there and carry 400-odd people halfway around the world?’ I still have that boyhood fascination.” When Strickland landed in Seattle, the first stop of a cross-America road trip, he went to the Boeing factory to see where it was built.
Since then, however, the hulking 747s have been replaced by more fuel-efficient, smaller planes that are easier and cheaper to operate. Two-engine aircraft can now carry people around the world, using up less fuel along the way – an issue for airlines seeking government bailouts that are tied to meeting environmental goals. A 2017 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation discovered that more than half of BA’s fleet then were “inefficient” 747 and A380 aircraft – which meant BA’s average fuel burn per aircraft was eight percentage points higher than the industry average. Coupled with a lower seat density than the rest of the industry, it made them less and less economical.
“You have the development of these very capable, long haul, twin-engine aircraft that have the better passenger carrying capability and better economics than the 747 and the A380,” explains Mann. That was what numbered the 747’s days, making it inevitable that they’d be taken out of service. But it wasn’t meant to be now. “The 747 already had the nails in its coffin anyway,” says the BA pilot.
Like most areas, aviation has been decimated by the coronavirus. As countries shut their borders and instigated lockdowns, planes have been grounded. “There just isn’t any large volume of demand for international long-haul service at this point,” says Mann. For a while, domestic flights within North America – which is where BA had shifted most of its workhorse 747s to see out their final days – were holding up, though eventually most of them were grounded. Money stopped coming in, but expenses, including on leases for newer aircraft from their manufacturers, kept going out of BA’s business. “These aircraft are all getting a little older,” says Strickland. “The 747s are all paid for, so there’s nothing to pay off. It’s a relatively straightforward thing to take them out compared to the newer ones they’re still paying for.”
There were also other considerations to take into account. While BA wasn’t paying for their lease, it would eventually have to pay for maintenance on the planes. Mann believes air traffic won’t return to 2019 levels for at least two years, and more likely three – a number corroborated by internal conversations BA has been having with its pilots. At that point, every aircraft, including the superannuated 747s – which made the average age of the BA fleet 23 years – would be three years older. “They’ll have to go through time-based maintenance procedures, irrespective of the amount they’ve flown, and it becomes uneconomic to invest that in maintenance when you don’t know when the planes will be next making a dollar,” says Mann.
Nonetheless, taking out a tenth of an airline’s fleet without replacing them is still a big decision to make. And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that a number of the 747 fleet had been reconfigured to what’s called super-high-J configurations, which puts far more business class seats into cabins to make the aircraft higher earners on high-business trafficked routes. The issue is that business class travel has fallen off a cliff, and looks unlikely to return quickly. Complete cabin refiguring costs millions of pounds, says David Gleave, an aviation consultant. “In the old days people would spend £4,000 on a return flight to New York. Nowadays they’ll stay at home and talk to you on Zoom,” he says. “A decision will have been made to just ground the fleet.”
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While BA is an outlier, with a large proportion of its entire fleet made up of an aircraft whose original design is more than 50 years old, it’s a bellwether for the industry as a whole. “Traditional airlines that operate on first and business class traffic are seeing a significant shift,” says Gleave. “Your skiing flights to Switzerland on EasyJet are going to be safe from anything other than external market forces. But business class travel is not going to return to previous levels.” For carriers, this means complicated adjustments to tried-and-tested business plans. It’s part and parcel of the new, smaller airline industry. “BA and almost all other major international airlines are downsizing in order to get through this crisis,” says Sobie. “It’s not the end for BA but a new chapter.”
What will be less popular with passengers is what air travel will be like in the future. “There will be many, many fewer flights,” says Gleave. Want to go to Australia? You’ll have less choice, and some difficult decisions. Qantas is looking at potentially operating two 787 flights from London to Perth, with connections onwards to Sydney and Melbourne, instead of a panoply of options that stopped off around the world. It means passengers wanting to make the trip will have to stomach an 18- or 19-hour flight in one go, or not go at all. BA is also rumoured to be pulling many of its flights out of other London airports and into Heathrow – an indication that some services currently operating daily won’t in the future. BA declined to answer specific questions for this story.
“Demand just isn’t there,” says Gleave. “It’s a tricky time for aviation. It doesn’t know where it’s going. And there are going to be many, many job losses.” That’s what the current BA pilot worries about. “For the 747 guys, it could be a bit of a problem, because they’re on a fleet that’s just been phased out completely,” the pilot says. “The challenge will be what happens next for those people. They’ll feel they’ve got a big crosshair over their head.”
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