The Boeing 747 first flew in 1969, making it two years younger than me. Nicknamed “Jumbo Jet” and “Queen of the Skies”, the massive passenger jet has been an icon ever since, while I achieved my long-standing ambition to fly in one when, on my first transatlantic flight, a British Airways 747 took me from Heathrow to Washington Dulles. Since then, I’ve been an occasional 747 passenger, mostly with British Airways, although, as time went on, I fell out of love with the plane, seduced by more modern jets with better-equipped cabins.
My romance was rekindled when I started flying business class for work. I was fortunate enough to fly in the 747’s main Club World cabin twice, first returning from Chicago, then from Phoenix. However, the best was still to come as I discovered the delights of the upper deck. Then, on what would become my final flight on a 747, I was upgraded to First Class!
I say final flight, because airlines have been retiring their 747 fleets. British Airways had been one of the holdouts, but its last two 747s had their final flights this month, prompting this post, a fond farewell to the Queen of the Skies.
You can read my tribute to the Boeing 747 after the gallery.
It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the Boeing 747 was when it entered service in 1970. There had been four-engine jets before (such as the Boeing 707), but this was the first twin-aisle airliner, seating 10 people a row in economy. It also had its iconic upper deck and, for a long time, was the largest passenger airliner in service.
My earliest memories of the 747 were from popular culture, mostly TV and movies, but when I moved to the southeast of England in the mid-1990s, I lived at the end of one of Heathrow’s stacks, so occasionally, when planes were queuing to land, they would fly out from the direction of the airport, turn above my house and then head back towards Heathrow. It was the first time that I saw aircraft fairly close up on a regular basis and, of all of them, the 747 fascinated me most. Because of the way the aircraft turned, there was a point where they appeared not to be moving at all. Instead, they just hung there, stationary in the sky, which, for something as large as a 747, was particularly incongruous!
Long before I started to travel by air, one of my ambitions was to fly in a 747, something which I achieved in 1998 when I made my first transatlantic flight. Along with an overall sense of excitement, there were two things that stuck with me from that flight. The first was the in-flight entertainment. This consisted of a large screen on the central bulkhead at the front of each section of the cabin, with the movie projected onto it. There were no TV screens in the back of the seat in front, no individual choice of movie, no pausing when you went to the toilet. Everyone watched the same movie, at the same time.
The second was a magical experience. This was before 9/11, when passengers were allowed on the flight deck, so I asked one of the cabin crew if I could go up and, to my delight, my wish was granted. Mid-flight, somewhere over the Atlantic, I was led towards the front of the plane, up the flight of stairs, through the upper cabin and into the cockpit. I was amazed at how small it was, although it was packed full of instruments and displays. Looking out of the windows, I could see the ocean down below, even picking out a few ships, but that was it for views. After chatting with the pilots for a few minutes, I was led back to my seat, unaware that I’d never again have the opportunity to be on the flight deck.
After that initial flight, I rarely flew on 747s, with the Boeing 777 being the aircraft of choice on most of my long-haul routes (not that I did the choosing). When I did fly on 747s, it was always in economy, and usually with British Airways, although when I went to the Caribbean in 2009, it was Virgin Atlantic 747s which took me there and back.
By the time I started the Coffee Spot and, after that, the Travel Spot, I was making notes about my journeys (and taking more photographs), but I still wasn’t flying on 747s that often. Typically, I went to the east coast of the USA, often to Boston or Newark, and then returned from another airport (such as Washington Dulles). Either that or I was flying to/from Chicago. However, while some of these were high volume destinations, I was always flying out of season, when demand was low, so the airlines put on smaller aircraft. Once again, the 747 didn’t feature that much.
The first mention of the 747 in the Travel Spot was in February 2016, when, ironically, I flew back from Boston on one. By then I had definitely fallen out of love with the Queen of the Skies, having taken to using my laptop on flights rather than just watching movies. For long-haul flights, that meant at-seat power was becoming essential, but while it was commonplace on more modern aircraft, in the economy cabins of British Airways 747s, it was sadly lacking.
On the flight back from Boston, the lack of power wasn’t an issue, since it’s a relatively short hop to London, and, on that occasion, we had strong tail winds, the whole flight taking just over 5½ hours. It was a different story when I flew to Phoenix later that year. This was my first trip to Phoenix, which was to become a regular destination for work, but on this occasion, I was still flying in economy and a 10-hour flight with no at-seat power was really stretching it.
After that, I decided that I would avoid flying in economy in 747s if at all possible, particularly as, due to the seat configuration, I found it hard to book exit row seats. The thought of flying for 10 hours in a standard economy seat was too much to bear!
However, at this point, I began to fly on business trips (and fly more often in general) which, coupled with a very generous travel budget, meant that I could afford to fly in business class.
My first experience of flying in business class came the following year in 2017, when I flew back from Vietnam with Vietnam Airlines. Then, towards the end of the year, I was flying back from Chicago to London Heathrow with British Airways. I’d already booked the flight in economy and was coming back on a 747. Faced with the unappetising prospect of eight hours on an overnight flight in an economy seat, I decided to upgrade the return leg to Club World (British Airways’ name for business class).
I’d left it quite late in upgrading the flight and wasn’t able to pick a seat. Then, to make matters worse, I was unable to check-in online, ending up getting my seat assigned at the desk in the lounge. Unsurprisingly, I got one of the worst seats, in the middle of a row, towards the back of the cabin. Not that I had much to complain about, as I quickly realised: even in the “worst” seat, business class was a huge step up from economy. Even better, my seat converted into a bed, so I was able to get some sleep on the flight, which was, at that point, a rare treat (for medical reasons, it’s very unwise for me to sleep in regular seats).
My next experience on a 747 came a few months later at the start of 2018. I’d flown out to Miami for a meeting, this time going on a British Airways A380. I was in economy and had managed to get a great seat in the small World Traveller section right at the back of the upper deck. Compared to my economy flights on the 747, this was heaven, with so much more space and at-seat power. From Miami, I flew to Phoenix, returning from there on another British Airways 747. Although I’d booked the flight in economy, I’d immediately upgraded it to Club World, and was lucky with my seat assignment, ending up with a window seat in the last row in the cabin. This has the big advantage that you don’t have to climb over anyone to get in and out of your seat!
Less than two months later, I was in Phoenix again, this time having flown out to Boston and then made my way there by train, a journey I’d split over several weeks. As before, I was flying back in Club World on a 747, and, as before, I was unable to check-in online. I’d been hoping for the same seat (or the one on the other side of the cabin) but instead I had a surprise waiting for me: I was upstairs in a very exclusive Club World cabin. This was like flying in your own private jet, with just 20 seats in all, complete with our own galley at the back. It took my love for the 747 to a whole new level!
The following year, at the very start of 2019, I was off to Phoenix again, this time flying direct from Heathrow on what would turn out to be my last ever flight on a 747 (not that I knew it at the time). I’d already booked my seat, upstairs again, but this time right at the back. I was really looking forward to flying on the upper deck, but when I checked in, I noticed that my seat assignment had changed. I was just about to get annoyed when I realised that I’d been upgraded to First Class!
As much as I loved the upper deck, First Class on a 747 is even better. Situated right in the nose, underneath (and, if you’re in the first two rows, in front of) the cockpit, there are just 14 seats in all, each in its own individual pod. I had a window seat and it was so luxurious. I’d only flown First Class once before, on a British Airways A380 coming back from Chicago, and I would venture to say that this was even better.
And then that was it. My days of flying on 747s were over. You can find out why after the gallery.
Although the Boeing 747 was the flagship passenger aircraft of many fleets, it was always a problematic aircraft. It was efficient, but only when full, which is why British Airways, for example, usually flew it on high-volume routes. Over the years, it began to be supplanted by smaller, more efficient twin-engine jets, particularly as their ranges increased, along with their capacities.
The rise of these newer aircraft, coupled with a change in the way people fly, has meant that the writing has been on the wall for the 747 for some time. Put simply, the 747 is no longer economic to fly, even when fully loaded, with smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft doing the job for much less (as an aside, the Airbus A380, which is even bigger than the 747, is going the same way, production ceasing in 2021).
In recent years, airlines around the world have begun to retire their 747 passenger fleets, although it is still hanging on as a freight carrier. Delta, the last US carrier to fly the 747, retired its remaining passenger aircraft at the end of 2017, while both UK carriers, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, had announced their intention to retire their 747 fleets. In Virgin’s case, a date was set for 2021, with British Airways looking to retire the last of its fleet in 2024.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought these dates forward in dramatic fashion. In May this year, Virgin Atlantic retired its last eight 747s with immediate effect, while the final flights of British Airways’ remaining two Boeing 747s took place earlier this month, the rest of the fleet having been retired over the summer. Although a handful of carriers still fly 747 passenger services, most notably Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air, it is very unlikely that I’ll be flying in one in the few years that they have left, so, for me, this really is the end of an era.
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