United heads back in time to celebrate 747 retirement, but where does the Jumbo Jet still fly?

US major United Airlines has revealed plans to turn its operations back more than 45 years by marking the retirement of the Boeing 747 from its fleet by recreating the first ever service from the type from back in 1970. However, it is unclear how far this recreation will go and if the airline will repaint the aircraft in the classic livery or even reconfigure the aircraft in the more spacious layout it offered at the time.

United says it will “look to the 1970s for inspiration” for its special 07-Nov-2017 retirement flight. A special “Friend Ship” service from San Francisco to Honolulu recreating the airline’s first ever 747 flight in 1970. The special one off flight will try as much as possible to “recreate the style and image of the United from the 1970s,” says the carrier.

In keeping with the retro theme, United will offer the ultimate “throwback” experience. The menu will be inspired by the menu of the 1970s and the cabin crew will wear the uniforms from that era. The inflight entertainment on offer will also feature movies and music from the 1970s.

After five decades flying variants of the 747 since the type’s debut in United Airlines operation on flights between California and Hawaii in 1970, the carrier says new technology, and notably the arrival of the 777-300ER into its fleet means now is the right time to retire the iconic airliner.

United took delivery of its first Boeing 747-100 on 26-Jun-1970 and it made its first commercial service on 23-Jul-1970 from San Francisco to Honolulu. In Apr-1985 United announced its plan to acquire Pan Am’s Pacific routes, as well as 11 747SPs and on 29-30-Jan-1988 one of the aircraft set an around-the-world air speed record of 36 hours, 54 minutes, and 15 seconds. The latest variant – the 747-400 – arrived in the United fleet from Jun-1989 and will operate the airline’s last scheduled commercial flight of the type on 29-Oct-2017 from Seoul to San Francisco.

United describes the retirement as “a bittersweet milestone” and said the jumbo jet and its unmistakable silhouette “once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel”. However, with “more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated inflight experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights,” it says that the accelerated plan was right for the airline and its customers.

It had originally planned to continue flying its remaining 747-400s until October 2018. It currently utilises the aircraft on routes from its San Francisco International Airport hub with schedules showing planned deployment this summer to Beijing, Frankfurt, London Heathrow, Seoul Incheon, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo Narita, according to OAG schedules data.

United will follow its US major rival Delta Air Lines in removing the Boeing 747 from commercial service during the final quarter of 2017 after bring forward its retirement plans for the aircraft by around a year. This will mean that at the end of this year there will no longer be jumbo jets operating on scheduled passenger services in the US. Ironically this is occurring as the nation’s President is set to incorporate mothballed 747-8Is as a replacement for the older 747 variants that currently fly as state transports.

The US carrier configures its 747-400s in a 374-seat arrangement and will replace them with the similarly-sized 777-300ER, which seats 366 in the airline’s configuration. United took delivery of its first examples in late 2016 and will grow its fleet to 14 aircraft before the end of 2017. The 777-300ER entered scheduled long haul service this summer, initially on the San Francisco – Hong Kong route from the end of March 2017, but is now also serving most of the markets previously flown by the 747-400.

Delta Air Lines, the only other scheduled operator of the 747 in North America, is also finalising its own retirement plans for the type as it modifies in Pacific network around the operation of more efficient twin-engine airliners. Like United, it launched flights with early variants of the 747 in 1970 and relaunched operations with the type after inheriting Northwest Airlines’ fleet of 747-400s following the merger of the airlines in the second half of the 2000s.

The carrier has reduced its fleet from 30 747s to just single-digits from the start of 2017 and removed the aircraft from operation at Atlanta, Minneapolis/St Paul and Seattle over the last year. The summer it is using the 747-400 on flights from Detroit to Seoul Incheon, Shanghai and Tokyo Narita and between Honolulu and Osaka and Tokyo Narita.

Although Boeing continues to produce the 747, only Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa have signed up to the 747-8I Intercontinental, the passenger version of its final stretch of the aircraft, and just 36 are in service. As more efficient twin-engined aircraft such as the A350, 787 and new 777X enter commercial service, more airlines will drop the popular 747 from operation. In fact many of the most famous operators of the type such as Air Canada, Air France, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Singapore Airlines have already retired the jumbo jet.

CHART – Annual 747 scheduled network capacity is on a downward trend as airlines continue to introduce more efficient twin-engined aircraft on many of its traditional routesSource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG

Our The Blue Swan Daily analysis shows the significant decline in 747 operations over the past ten years. Since 2007 global 747 scheduled passenger capacity has fallen from 115 million seats to just under 40 million last year and is forecast to decline to under 35 million in 2017, based on published schedules. The decline in 747 activity at the world’s airlines has seen year-on-year capacity declines every year during this period: the largest taking place in 2016 when year-on-year capacity fell 15.1%.

Lufthansa, one of the few operators of the new 747-8I, is the largest user of the 747 in terms of scheduled capacity and bucking the industry trend as it has actually grown its 747 network capacity for four consecutive years (2013 – 2016). Published schedules suggest a modest -0.1% decline in the carrier’s 747 capacity in 2017, albeit its share of 747 capacity will rise from 15.7% in 2016 to 17.9% this year.

CHART – Lufthansa is one of the few carriers to grow its 747 flying in recent years and together with British Airways account for a third of all 747 seatsSource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG

Looking ahead into the forthcoming winter schedule will see 747 network capacity declining -8.2% versus last winter.  Alongside the Frankfurt, London Heathrow, Bangkok and Seoul Incheon bases of the four largest operators of the type, the largest markets for 747 operations comprise New York, Beijing, Taipei, Sydney, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

CHART – The 747 will still be flown to 114 scheduled passenger destinations during winter 2017/2018 with more than 225 departures on average each daySource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG