“A Bittersweet Milestone:” United to Move Boeing 747 Retirement from 2018 to Q4 2017

A United Boeing 747-400 departs from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks.com | Greg Linton)

The Boeing 747 has been an iconic aircraft since day one. Following its roll out on Sep. 30, 1968, the 747 has come to be known as the “Queen of the Skies” by airlines and aviation enthusiasts alike. The airliner has carried passengers from across the globe using its once-unique double-decker design and increased speed and performance.

During the time of its introduction and initial operation, the 747 had no competition as it was the only aircraft in its category for numerous years. However, the jumbo jet started to see a shift in orders and active aircraft when the Boeing 777 came out in 1995. Airlines began retiring their older 747s for the newer, more efficient 777s.

Fast forward to 2007 when the Airbus A380 was rolled out. This massive bird can carry more passengers and is more efficient than the aging ‘Queen.’ Between the age of the Boeing 747 and the introduction of more efficient aircraft, carries have been retiring the 747 in greater numbers than before. United has now joined the small handful of airlines that are slated to retire their 747s in 2017.

In March 2016, United initially announced that they will retire their remaining fleet of Boeing 747-400s by the end of 2018. However, the airline’s president, Scott Kirby, announced today that the retirement of the remaining 20 aircraft will be moved to the fourth quarter of 2017.

In a statement, Kirby stated, “It’s a bittersweet milestone – this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in travel.” Kirby’s internal memo also mentioned that the company will ensure a smooth transition for all of its employees who currently work with the 747 fleet.

United will be one of the last US-based carriers to utilize the 747 for passenger service. Delta will also retire their current fleet of 747s by the end of 2017. Delta is currently operating seven 747-400s and replacing them with newer aircraft such as the Airbus A350XWB. Other carriers that have retired their 747 fleets in recent years include Cathay Pacific and Air France.

The Boeing 777 and Airbus A350, on average, carry nearly the same amount of passengers but see a sizable difference in fuel burn. Bloomberg reported that the Boeing 747 burns 20 percent more fuel than the newer widebody airliners on the market today.

A United 747 featuring the Tulip-livery at the airline’s “super bay” in San Francisco (Photo: Alex Navitsky)

In addition, United stated that the 747 fleet is being retired because “there are more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights.” The airline also added that the reason for the early retirement is due to the 747s having “aged in recent years, the fleet requires routing limitations, extra Tech Ops attention.” They also mentioned the differentiating fuel burn comparison between the 747-400 and 777-300ER.

United also said that the ‘Queen’ “has the lowest customer satisfaction scores” in the company’s fleet and finding parts is becoming a difficult task.

The retired 747-400s that are owned by United will be placed in storage until they are sold or scrapped for parts. The leased aircraft will be returned to the respective leasing companies.

The Chicago-based airline’s oldest currently operating 747-400 was delivered on Jan. 20, 1990 and the newest was delivered on May 12, 2000. United has previously operated four variants of the Queen including the 747-100, 747-200, 747-400, and the SP model. In total, United has owned nearly 90 747s, approximately 37 of which having been stored or retired. The following list shows the current flights that United operates with the Boeing 747:

UAL888: San Francisco – Beijing / UAL889: Beijing – San Francisco

UAL837: San Francisco – Tokyo Narita / UAL838: Tokyo Narita – San Francisco

UAL869: San Francisco – Hong Kong / UAL862: Hong Kong – San Francisco

UAL893: San Francisco –Seoul Incheon / UAL892: Seoul Incheon – San Francisco

UAL58: San Francisco – Frankfurt / UAL59: Frankfurt – San Francisco

UAL871: San Francisco – Taiwan Taoyuan / UAL872: Taiwan Taoyuan – San Francisco

*List subject to change

The details of the final flight have yet to be finalized but United says, “you can be sure that we will be honoring this iconic aircraft’s retirement with a celebration worthy of its legacy.” United will post the final details of the retirement flight once they become available within the next few weeks.

Matthew Garcia

Matthew Garcia

Matthew Garcia became interested in aviation at the age of 12 when he installed Microsoft Flight Simulator X on his computer. He was instantly "bitten by the bug" and has been in love with aviation ever since. Matthew took his first introductory flight in 2013 and began normal flight training in February of 2015. Over the years, Matthew's love and knowledge for aviation has grown tremendously, mainly due to FSX. Garcia flies highly advanced aircraft in a professional manner on a highly complex virtual air traffic network simulating real world flying. In 2016 Matthew achieved his private pilot certificate from the FAA. Now he studies journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Matthew Garcia