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Birds of a Feather: The Aircraft Lost to COVID-19 in 2020 Part 1

The British Airways Landor livery on a 747 (Photo: Karam Sodhi)

To not mince words about the commercial aviation industry when talking about the last year, but 2020 sucked. The global force for moving passengers was grounded with the rapid spread of COVID-19 as borders closed, demand fell and airlines looked to make the most of the disaster at hand. Months later with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines beginning to move in heavy shipments to show the light at the end of the tunnel, some new or legendary aircraft will not be joining the recovery effort. With that in mind let us recap the end of an era for aviation history.

The Boeing 747

The most notable loss was the accelerated retirement of the Boeing 747-400 from airlines across the globe. Qantas would lead the charge, pushing forward a December 2020 retirement to July as the airline was facing limited market utilization as Australia shut itself out of the world to prevent the spread in the country. Qantas would see the final ‘Queen of the Skies’ leave Australian skies on July 23rd, as QF747 would depart from Sydney, draw out the airline’s kangaroo logo and head to Victorville, California to wait out its potential future.

British Airways turned heads for its handling of the 747 retirements, offering the quietest retirement that was drawn out for quite the longest time. The aircraft was originally due for a 2024 removal but the effects of the travel downturn saw the aircraft parked before being moved to other airports across the United Kingdom. The final 2 Boeing 747-400s operated departures from London-Heathrow on October 8th at 7:47 am before being moved to Cardiff and Kemble to get parted out. However, the response from the aviation community to save some aircraft has been well received as the special livery Landor, Negus, and BOAC liveries to celebrate the 100th anniversary of British Airways’ origins in 2019 were moved to museums and will not be scrapped.

Similar to the flag carrier, English brand Virgin Atlantic also said farewell to its fleet of Boeing 747-400s. The long-haul airline had made the aircraft a common sight on flights to popular routes such as Florida but the closing of borders wreaked havoc on operations. The 2021 phase-out date would be shifted to ‘immediate’ in May 2020 when the airline was assessing the issues caused by the coronavirus. Despite losing operations status, the 747s have lingered till December with the airline offering tickets for passengers to once again board the aircraft for a final time. The final bird G-VROY is due to depart the fleet before the end of December.

Across the channel, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines added themselves to the list of airlines removing the Queen from operations. The airline was already in the process of retiring the fleet before the pandemic with a mid-2021 target set to remove the airplane. But like it has been noted in other airlines, the mixed freight-passenger model of the 747-400 was forced to retire early as the airline found some use in medical payload operations but knew the fate of the old model was sealed. On October 26, 2020, the final passenger model of the KLM 747-400 would operate and the aircraft would be stripped of the title and moved to storage. For those still wishing to see the aircraft in KLM blue, the subsidy Martinair Cargo operates three Boeing 747-400Fs in KLM Cargo colors with no retirement plans made by the airline for the time being.

Boeing 767

The first airline to part ways with its Boeing 767 fleet was that of American Airlines, which had diminished its fleet of over 100 aircraft to just a handful as the company was favoring newer Airbus A321s and Boeing 787s to pick up old 767 routes. American’s 767 retirements would be confirmed on April 30 alongside two other aircraft types being noted for being release.

Over one month after American’s retirement, the Canadian flag carrier Air Canada would confirm that both the mainline carrier and low-cost arm Rouge would dispose of the aircraft type. The airline had operated the aircraft type for 38 years under the Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge titles, focusing on long haul operations and bulk supply routes to leisure destinations. The final mainline 767 would operate a flight from Montreal to Toronto on June 2nd as closed borders limited the potential final flight for the aircraft type. Air Canada Rouge’s fleet would total 25 aircraft and was a staple for the low-cost brand, operating since the airline-within-an-airline’s start in 2013 and operating the longer flights to Latin America and Europe.

Following yet another one gap, another Canadian airline announced the disposal of its 767 fleet. The carrier, WestJet, had taken hold of ex-Qantas models in the hope to launch operations to Europe while later Boeing 787s would replace the cheap launch aircraft. The airline would keep the model around even after the Dreamliner came, eventually deciding that 2020 would be the retirement year for what was statistically WestJet’s oldest active aircraft.

Airbus A340

Similar to the Boeing 747, iconic long-haul fleets for some airlines were based around utilizing the Airbus A340. Of these airlines Iberia had been the one shrink the fleet the most, with 2020 already calling for the fleet to shrink at a consistent pace to coincide with a 2025 retirement mark, the process would be accelerated to this year as the final A340 would phase-out of the Spanish carrier’s operations in August. The final 14 A340s would disappear from the roster, leaving the airline with A330s and A350s to carry the Iberia name for long haul operations to come.

Virgin Atlantic was originally the first to remove the Airbus A340 fleet with the final three A340-600s being released from the fleet in late March 2020. The airline had been clinging on to the fleet for a few years as delays and expansion kept the aircraft type useful. The fleet peaked at 29 strong before being whittled down to just three to begin the new decade. The retired airframes were moved to Bournemouth where they were converted to cargo aircraft for the United Kingdom to move PPE between Asia and the island nation.

The most recent A340 casualty came from Northern Europe as Scandinavian Airlines said farewell to ‘Astrid Viking’ as it moved to Pinal Airpark in Arizona from Copenhagen, Denmark in late November following years of being the crutch for flights between Scandinavia and the outside world. The airline had made plans to remove the fuel-guzzling model in late 2019 as the A350 was coming online, however, no date was set. Similar to Iberia, the airline will rely on Airbus A330s and A350s to power the remainder of the decade’s long-haul operations for the multinational brand.

Ian McMurtry


  • Ian McMurtry

    Although Ian McMurtry was never originally an avgeek, he did enjoy watching US Airways aircraft across western Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. He lived along the Pennsylvania Railroad and took a liking to trains but a change of scenery in the mid-2000s saw him shift more of an interest into aviation. He would eventually express this passion by taking flying lessons in mid-Missouri and joining AirlineGeeks in 2013. Now living in Wichita, Kansas, Ian is in college majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in business administration at Wichita State University.

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