Jumbo jet’s last hurrah looms as United retires largest planes

The 747 made headlines when it entered service in 1970 with its distinctive humped back but now airlines such as United are retiring the famous old jet.

A Boeing 747-8 lands at Le Bourget airport in Paris. United Airlines is set to retire its last jumbo jet. Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
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United Airlines plans to fly its last Boeing 747 jumbo jet late this year, retiring its largest airplanes a year ahead of schedule as the iconic aircraft glides into the sunset.

The decision marks the end of an era for US airlines, which have relied on the humpbacked 747 to bring jet travel to a mass consumer market since the plane debuted in 1970. United flew its first jumbo between California and Hawaii that year.

It is also a reminder of the tough task Boeing faces as it tries to keep its newest 747 model, the -8, aloft amid waning demand for four-engine aircraft. The plane maker has just 28 unfilled orders, after closing 17 sales of the freighter version of the jet last year. Boeing has said it would end production if more orders don’t materialise.

“It’s a bittersweet milestone – this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel,” the United president Scott Kirby said in a letter to employees.

Last year, the UK's Daily Mail reported a former Pan Am 747 passenger plane was being advertised as a "head of state configured aircraft" and thought to be worth in the region of £18 million (Dh81m).

It was extensively refurbished in 2004, and the aircraft’s extravagant interior features luxury en-suite bedrooms, ministerial boardrooms complete with conferencing facilities, offices, stylish dining areas and soft furnishing.

The 195ft wingspan special performance model plane has been a regular feature at Bournemouth Airport, Dorset, for roughly a decade and is one of only 12 left flying after just 45 of the high end planes were built.

It was leased from Worldwide Aircraft Holding in 1995 by the Qatar ruling family the Al Thanis and was painted in the colours of the country’s maroon and white flag soon after.

Also last year the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden unveiled their new "tour bus" – a personalised 747 that replaced the band's previous set of wings, a 757. Frontman Bruce Dickinson is a licensed pilot and Iron Maiden used the jet on their Book of Souls world tour. Dickinson has been flying for over 20 years and previously he was a professional pilot for the now defunct British charter line Astraeus.

The eye-catching livery of the plane was applied Sharjah.

While it has long been a favourite of celebrities and the mega-rich, the jumbo hit world headlines again when it carried the US Space Shuttle on its back during flight tests.

Nasa flew two modified 747s, originally manufactured for commercial use, as Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. One is a 747-123 model, while the other was designated a 747-100SR-46 model. The two aircraft were identical in performance as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).

The SCAs were used to ferry space shuttle orbiters from landing sites back to the launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center and also to and from other locations too distant for the orbiters to be delivered by ground transport.

The jumbo carried its last shuttle in 2012.

Chicago-based United flies 20 of the 747-400 passenger model, which Boeing manufactured from 1988 and 2009. Delta Air Lines, the other US operator, is also parking the jumbo jets this year. Cathay Pacific Airways, ANA, Singapore Airlines and Air France are among carriers that have retired their 747-400 jetliners this decade amid a shift from four-engine aircraft.

Twin-engine wide-bodies suchas Boeing’s 777 and the Airbus A350 can haul almost as many people over vast distances as aviation’s behemoths, the 747 and Airbus’ A380 superjumbo. United’s jumbos burn about 20 per cent more fuel per seat than its newest 777s and require special handling from maintenance technicians. Sourcing spare parts is becoming a headache as more airlines retire their jumbo fleets, according to the airline.

The United spokesman Luke Punzenberger would not say which wide-body aircraft would replace the planes that have served as the airline’s workhorses on trans-Pacific routes for two decades. The carrier has taken delivery of the first of 14 Boeing 777-300ERs it has ordered for long-range flying.

The airline also has ordered 35 Airbus A350-1000s, but is weighing converting those twin-aisle jets to the smaller 900 variant or the mid-sized A330, the United chief financial officer Andrew Levy said in November.

The airline plans to move pilot and flight attendant crews assigned to the 747 transition to other aircraft, Kirby told employees. “Our forward-looking fleet plan will cover 747 replacements and anticipated growth opportunities,” he said. “And of course, we’ll honor the 747 with an unforgettable retirement celebration.”

* Agencies

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