Airlines Bid Early Farewell to Iconic Jumbo Jets

Pandemic prompts retirement of Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft

By Evan Dougherty

Published August 10, 2020

Read Time: 5 mins


Some airplanes won’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the global health crisis continues to disrupt the aviation industry, more airlines are retiring entire fleets of aircraft – including some aviation icons: the Boeing 747, Airbus A380 and McDonnell Douglas MD-80, to name a few.

Why are these planes retiring? One reason is that major carriers like American, United and Delta are simply preparing to become smaller airlines. As a result of the drop in travel demand and in an effort to cut costs, the big three U.S. airlines are anticipating the need to reduce their networks and operations, and will likely furlough thousands of employees.

“Watching airlines retire their fleets . . . feels like a gut punch,” said Jeb Brooks, a North Carolina-based aviation blogger. “These are more than mere machines – they demonstrate incredible engineering, they’ve created countless memories and represent thousands of jobs.”

While some aircraft retirements were inevitable, like Delta’s aging MD-88, other announcements took aviation professionals and enthusiasts by surprise. That’s especially true of the iconic Boeing 747, fondly referred to as the “Queen of the Skies.”

In August 2019, a British Airways Boeing 747 diverted to PIT for a gas-n-go diversion due to inclement weather on the east coast. (Photo by Dan Graban)

The 747 was the first passenger “jumbo jet” to enter commercial service. Its four engines and upper passenger deck, otherwise known as its “hump,” made the plane instantly recognizable. The aircraft allowed airlines to expand globally and offered new luxury for travelers.

“Flying on a 747 is an amazing experience – I don’t think the exuberance I feel when boarding a 747 is limited to people like me,” said Brooks, who has done trip reports on many of the planes. “It seems like nearly everyone recognizes the distinctive shape of a 747 and gets a twinge of excitement when walking down a jet bridge toward one of these machines. A terminal window overlooking a 747 resting at its gate is rarely without at least a few people with cameras.”

Australian-based Qantas was one of the first airlines to begin flying the Boeing 747, starting with that carrier in 1971. (Pan Am was the first in 1970.) Since then, the 747 has played an important role in connecting Australia, a geographically remote county, to the rest of the world.

Qantas Airlines flew its final Boeing 747 flight in late July. (Image courtesy of Qantas)

The airline wasn’t planning on retiring the aircraft until early 2021 but has accelerated that schedule because of the drop in passenger demand.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact that the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia. This aircraft was well ahead of its time and extremely capable,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement. “They carved out a special place in aviation history and I know they’ll be greatly missed by a lot of people, including me.”

The final Qantas 747 flight, designated QF7474, departed Sydney on July 22, where hundreds gathered to watch the jumbo jet take off one last time.

The pilots even operated the flight path to reflect the shape of the airline’s iconic kangaroo logo as a final farewell before continuing on to Mojave, California, where Qantas is storing the retired aircraft.

Dwindling numbers

The retirement of 747s across the world marks the end of an era at many airlines.

In July, British Airways announced the retirement of all 31 of its 747-400s – nearly four years earlier than originally planned. British Airways had been flying the 747 since 1970.

Dutch carrier KLM pulled all of its 747s from passenger service in March as a result of low demand from international travel restrictions. Despite putting some 747s back into service to operate cargo-only flights to China, KLM plans to retire the entire fleet in October – nearly one year earlier than originally scheduled.

Cargo operators are likely to continue operating Boeing 747 freighters for the next several years. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)

Cargo carriers, including UPS Airlines, will continue to fly 747-8F freighters for years to come, particularly for intercontinental flights. The aircraft can carry larger payloads at greater ranges; on some versions, the nose section opens for more efficient loading and unloading of cargo.

In total, only 87 passenger 747s remain in service worldwide, according to flight tracking site Flightradar24. Of those, Lufthansa (28), Korean Air (12) and Rossiya Airlines (9) are the largest operators.

So long, jumbo jet

In addition to the Boeing 747, another iconic jumbo jet to retire during the pandemic is the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft.

Over the past few months, airlines including Air France and Emirates have announced the retirement of the massive, four-engine superjumbo.

A diverted Air France A380 stops at Pittsburgh International Airport for refueling in May 2019. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The A380, like the 747, draws the attention of aviation enthusiast around the world.

“Seeing something so massive get in the air is just an amazing sight of the power of engineering in aviation,” said Anthony Faraone, a Fort Lauderdale-based aviation photographer. “What drew so much attention to the aircraft from aviation enthusiasts in South Florida was its size and rarity. The A380 only flies to a small handful of airports in the US – Miami was lucky to be one of them.”

Phasing out the jumbo jets began before the pandemic. In recent years, airlines began to replace the planes with newer, more fuel-efficient twinjet planes, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.

But record-high passenger traffic numbers before the pandemic helped keep the jumbo jets relevant. On long-haul flights, the Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s can accommodate high volumes of passengers and cargo on such routes as New York to London, Washington, D.C to Frankfurt, Germany and Los Angeles to Sydney.

As a result of the pandemic, the aviation landscape has changed dramatically. Global restrictions and quarantines have greatly reduced demand for international travel. And phasing out older, less fuel-efficient aircraft helps airlines save costs on maintenance and training pilots.

Recently, Boeing announced that it will end 747 production, with the last one expected to roll off the assembly line in 2022. Airbus will discontinue A380 production next year due to a lack of new orders.

For travelers and aviation enthusiasts, the jumbo jets will leave a lasting legacy.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have flown on a few 747s and once on the A380 in my life. They were some of the best flights I’ve ever been on and I’m glad I had the opportunity to go on them,” said Faraone. “I share a ‘birthday’ with the A380, so for me it will be very sad when that airplane leaves the skies.”

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