Queen of the Skies at 50 | Sunday Observer

Queen of the Skies at 50

Readers of this column know already that I am a bit passionate about planes and aviation. I try to keep up with the latest developments in the world of aviation. I have flown in a variety of aircraft such as the MD-80 and Lockheed Tristar (which have since gone to scrap yards) and the latest Airbus A350 and the Boeing Dreamliner (787). But one big bird has eluded me on my travels and I cannot help thinking about it – the venerable old Boeing 747 also known as the “Queen of the Skies” and the “Jumbo Jet”. I was still schooling when Singapore Airlines operated a 747 to Colombo every Sunday and afterwards, the 747 and I never really met.

This four-engined giant is easily the most widely recognized and recognizable plane in the world – even Montessori children instantly recognize this behemoth. A possible reason for the plane’s popularity is that Air Force One, the official transport of the President of the United States is a modified Boeing 747 (The plane, known as VC-25 is officially called Air Force One only when the President is on board). Even the next Presidential transports, to be delivered in 2024, are Boeing 747s. But the USA is not alone in having 747s for Government travel - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, China, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Morocco are among the other countries.

50 years ago

There are two reasons why I am penning this tribute to the 747 at this stage. First, the 747 had its first test flight exactly 50 years ago - Boeing would go on to build 1,550 units. Second, most airlines still operating the massive airliner are phasing it out completely, so by end 2024, it will not be possible to board a commercial, scheduled 747 flight (Freight only 747s will continue to adorn the skies for many more years, though). Yes, Boeing still does manufacture the plane in its latest passenger avatar the 747-8 Intercontinental, but the demand is fading because twin-engined wide bodied planes can do much the same job with less fuel. This problem is experienced by the 747’s nemesis the Airbus A380 as well. However, it is no mean feat to have an airframe to be built for continuously 50 years.

But if you want to experience the iconic 747-400 or even the new 747-8i, you have to hurry. While there are said to be close to 500 747s still in service worldwide, they are being phased out rather fast as airliners are replacing them with the much more fuel-efficient Airbus A350s and the Boeing 787s, not to mention placing orders for Boeing’s upcoming 777X, which will have the largest jet engines ever from General Electric.

For the last time

In the meantime, it is time to catch a 747 flight while you still can. The world’s oldest still-operational 747, delivered to KLM in 1989, flew for the last time in November 2018, from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. The plane had 134,700 flight hours on the clock, equivalent to 15 years of flight time. Instead of being sent to the scrap yard, it will be permanently parked outside an airport hotel in Schiphol, Amsterdam. The good news is that the airline still has another 14 younger 747s in service.

Just last month, the Australian carrier Qantas bade farewell to 747 services between Los Angeles to Brisbane (Hawaii and San Francisco flights will see the 747 in service for the time being). The flight closed an important chapter in Qantas’ history and one of its longest, as the airline has been operating the popular, yet aging jumbo jet between Australia and Los Angeles for nearly 50 years, earning iconic status among aviation enthusiasts around the world. In fact, there was even a time when Qantas operated an all-747 passenger fleet – it was one of a handful of airlines ever to do so.

It still has nine 747s in service, with retirement looming for all of them by end 2020. They will be replaced by the three versions of the Boeing 787.

Retired 747s

Delta’s retired 747s are now awaiting their fate in an airplane graveyard in Arizona, while United and Eva Air flew their last 747s in 2017. Air France and Cathay Pacific too gave up the 747 last year. But fear not. Among the 19 airlines which still offer 747-400 flights are Korean Air, British Airways, Air India, Lufthansa, KLM, Air China, China Airlines, Asiana, Thai, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Rossiya and El Al. KLM will retire their 747 fleet in 2021, Thai by 2022 and BA by 2024. Note that Lufthansa also operates the newer 747-8i version, barely seven years old, which will not be retired anytime soon. Incidentally, Iran’s Mahan Air has the last remaining 747-300 “Classic” still in service.

But for a more authentic and “original” experience, you should fly the 747-400 version, which will not be around for much longer.

Among the destinations/airport served by the 747-400 are: Amsterdam, JFK, Bangkok, Beijing, Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Los Angeles, Mexico City, Moscow, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Tokyo Haneda. Unfortunately, there are no scheduled 747 services to Colombo. Generally, there are more freighter versions of the 747 out there and most of the retiring ones are also converted to freighters. These should be in the skies for at least the next 30 years.

Preferred mode

If you are flying to any of these destinations within the next year or so, try to choose a 747 as your preferred mode of jetting in. I am aiming at a London-New York hop on board a BA 747 to at last fulfil my ambition of flying in a 747.

There are websites and booking engines that allow you to search for flights with particular airliners. Always look for the aircraft type – if it says 747, you can go right ahead. Be aware that since the 747 is getting on in terms of years and repairs are more frequent, there could be substitutions.

In any case, the 747’s days are numbered, thanks in no small measure to newer aircraft that can carry almost the same number of passengers in more comfort using less fuel. This is the same problem facing the double-deck Airbus A380, but I will focus on the future of that airplane in another column.

While the 747 was a technological marvel when it was unveiled back in 1969, today’s planes are much more sophisticated, having features such as lower pressure levels, ambient ‘mood’ lighting, bigger widows’, reduced noise, better safety, all-screen cockpits and above all, lower fuel consumption. It is not therefore surprising that the 747-400 ‘Queen of the Skies’ will have to retire within the next five-six years maximum. Make the most of it while you still can.