An era truly ended on Friday 17th July 2020, as the British Airways 747-400 fleet became the latest casualty of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
In truth, the ending to the piece had been inevitable for some time, with BA officially ceasing 747 crew training (including recurrent training) a few weeks ago, and major maintenance on the fleet stopping at the same time. Along with all other airlines, BA has seen its business decimated by the pandemic and resulting travel restrictions. Across the airline’s entire fleet, large numbers of aircraft have been placed in varying levels of storage, with the majority of the 747 fleet having been parked for many months now.
The relationship between BA and Boeing’s Queen of the Skies goes back many years. In fact, since its formation by the merger of BEA and BOAC (plus Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airlines) in 1973 until today, there have always been 747s in BA’s fleet. BOAC received the first of an initial order of sixteen 747-100s in 1970. The initial fifteen aircraft in the batch were delivered to BOAC, with the final aircraft being delivered to the newly formed British Airways in 1974. Subsequent deliveries (plus an aircraft leased from Aer Lingus for some years) took the total number of 100 series aircraft operated to nineteen.
These early aircraft were powered by P&W JT9D engines, in contrast to later deliveries which standardised on the Rolls Royce RB211. When it arrived, the 747 represented a huge leap forward in both technology and scale. Its large size dwarfed the previous generation of aircraft, and it offered passengers a journey which was smooth and comfortable, but also for the first time, affordable to the majority. International travel became available to the masses.
BA later ordered the updated version of the 747, the 747-200B, with the first aircraft arriving in 1977. Further 200 series aircraft were inherited from British Caledonian in 1987. The 200 series offered better range and performance when compared to the 100 series, and BA used the aircraft to develop and consolidate its position as one of the world’s best known carriers.
BA’s love affair with the 747 was to reach its peak when Boeing offered its updated 747-400 series in the late 1980s. The airline eventually built up a fleet of 57 “Four Hundreds”, with deliveries taking place between 1989 and 1999. The 747 became the premier fleet in the airline, and was seen as the most desirable posting for pilots, or rather, the most desirable subsonic posting…
The original 747-100s bowed out in the late 1990s, with the final deliveries of 400s being replacements for these early jets. The 747-200Bs soldiered on for a while longer, until the events of September 11th 2001, and the subsequent decline in passenger numbers. This led to an early retirement for the “Classic” 747 fleet, although the 400 remained the backbone of the airline’s long haul network throughout the early 2000s.
The 2008 financial crisis was the next global event to adversely affect the airline industry. By that point, the 747-400’s position in BA was being challenged by the 777, as BA built up a growing fleet of the newer, more efficient twin. Six aircraft entered storage at Cardiff and Victorville; although two of the aircraft sent to California returned to service after around a year in storage, the remaining four never re-entered service, and the gradual decline in numbers began for the fleet.
With the arrival of the A380 fleet and deliveries of 777-300ERs to supplement a large fleet of 777-200s, the 747 began to fall from favour. The fleet declined in numbers after 2014, with a handful of aircraft being withdrawn annually and flown to a variety of airfields for storage and reclamation.
By March 2020, BA had a total of 30 747-400s remaining in service. That number was meant to gradually reduce to zero over the next few years, as new deliveries of types such as the 787-10 and A350-1000 took place. However, the emergence of COVID-19 caused that retirement process to accelerate; in April, five aircraft were flown to Teruel in Spain and two to Kemble. It is understood that these aircraft were almost certainly not intended to return to service, but the remainder of the fleet remained in storage at Heathrow, Cardiff and Bournemouth, ready for an intended reactivation.
During this period, a handful of flights were made, with the last being a series of repatriation flights from Cape Town, South Africa. It appears that the last of these flights, performed by G-CIVO on 2 Jun will be the final passenger service for a British Airways 747. The remaining aircraft are now concentrated at Heathrow and Cardiff, presumably awaiting final disposal.
There is some debate over which airline operated the most 747-400s. Singapore Airlines can lay claim to having operated the most airframes (57), although not all of these aircraft were in service at the same time, meaning the operational fleet never reached that number. BA’s fleet of 747-400s stood at 56 from the delivery of the final airframe in 1999, until the fleet began to be reduced in 2008 (with the exception of a short period when a single aircraft was leased to QANTAS).
BA’s relationship with the 747 was truly a love affair and lasted long after many other airlines had moved on to more modern types. COVID-19 has unfortunately proved to be the final nail in the coffin for this much loved aircraft.
In the midst of a global pandemic, threatening the lives and livelihoods of people worldwide, it seems somewhat trivial to mourn the passing of an aircraft from service, but it is truly a sad end for a distinguished machine which was responsible for a revolution in global air transportation. Over the many years that BA has operated 747s, they have carried countless people to all corners of the world, and provided the backdrop for all sorts of significant events in these people’s lives; indeed one of GAR’s contributors met his wife on one of the BA 747 fleet (G-CIVB, in case anyone is interested).
Loved by her passengers, adored and respected by those that worked on her, the last of the non-fly-by-wire, old school jets in the fleet. More modern aircraft may be bigger, quieter or more efficient, but none can compare to the grace and elegance of the masterpiece of aeronautical design that is the Boeing 747.
The Queen of the Skies. She kept us safe and never let us down.