With the news that Virgin Atlantic is retiring its remaining 7 Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jets its a very real possibility that we could come out of this pandemic with none of the type left in the UK fleet.
The once exulted “Queen of the Skies” was the airliner of choice for long-haul flying. Instantly recognisable by its hump, the 747 was born from a dream by airline pioneer & Pan AM CEO Juan Trippe who wanted an airliner much bigger than the Boeing 707.
When launched into service in 1969 it ushered in a new era of flying, particularly transatlantic flying. Suddenly it was affordable for the masses with large economy sections seating hundreds as well as large first-class areas for those who liked (and could afford) the finer things.
The type is still being produced today, albeit, in the form of the Boeing 747-8F as the passenger variant, the 747-8i has no outstanding orders.
It was the airliner of choice when Richard Branson wanted to launch an airline to take on the London to New York route, Boeing 747-200 G-VIRG was Virgin’s first-ever aircraft.
Since then Virgin Atlantic has always had a fleet of Boeing 747’s, right up to the 747-400 variant.
The only other operator in the UK of the type is British Airways, the worlds largest operator of the 747.
So what about the future?
The Boeing 747 is what is known as a quad-jet and is now being overtaken in range, capacity and more importantly for airlines – efficiency, by modern twin-jet airliners such as Boeing’s own 777 and 787 or Airbus’ A350 and A330.
Its age also meant that most airlines, including British Airways & Virgin, had already planned to retire the type over the next few years but the current crisis in aviation caused the global coronavirus pandemic has forced airlines to bring those dates forward.
As of today Virgin Atlantic now has no Boeing 747-400 aircraft in service with all 7 being retired for parting out or potential sale for freighter conversion (the 747 is still popular in the cargo market).
British Airways, which had 28 of the type coming into the pandemic, has already retired 10 of them, and as the airline announces a fleet streamlining programme, is expected to retire the rest over the course of 2021.
A sky without 747’s
As a result, it is unlikely that the Boeing 747 will be in the UK fleet as the industry recovers from the current crisis, which although expected this decade, was not expected quite as quickly but airlines must be able to adapt if they are to survive.
But for all her beauty, and let’s be honest, she is perhaps the most beautiful subsonic airliner ever made, she is a lumbering inefficient beast from the glory days of aviation that is being beaten up by leaner rivals.
The days before the £9.99 ‘stag do’ flight to Ibiza, also known as the good old days. Some might even say, the better days of aviation.
It’s hard to imagine London’s Airports not seeing a British Airways or Virgin Atlantic 747 but its a reality that must be faced as we enter this brave new world.
We will still see Boeing 747’s in the UK skies and even some at UK airports but they won’t belong to British airlines any more.
Farewell my Queen.