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Mourning the Slow Demise of the 747

by on October 24, 2013 · 48 comments

in Airline Industry

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I remember the first time I ever flew a Boeing 747. It was on the upper deck of a Singapore Airlines 747 in business class (which has since stopped flying these whale jets altogether), and I can still feel the rush I got climbing those steps to one of the most exclusive experiences in the air. At that moment, it was clear why this enormous feat of engineering and technical skill was dubbed the “Queen of the Skies.”

The best way to rack up elite qualifying miles is by flying!

Iconic Pan Am 747- never got to try one of these birds

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of flying these big birds across continents and oceans in some pretty unique circumstances, like being right at the front of the cone in row 1 of both British Airways first class and Lufthansa business class, and I think that my all-time favorite flight on one was when I got to fly Lufthansa’s new 747-400 First Class last summer, which has just eight seats – or more specifically seats plus beds – on the upper deck.

Flying in style: Lufthansa first class on the 747 upper deck Frankfurt-Miami

One of my all-time favorite flights was in Lufthansa’s top-deck 747 first class.

But an AP story today said that the days of double-deck flying aboard Boeing’s flagship aircraft might be drawing to a close, noting that Boeing has had its orders for new 747′s cut twice in the last six months to just 18 for each of the next two years and it hasn’t sold any new orders this year at all. That’s compared to a peak in 1990 when Boeing sold 122 of them in a single year. All told, Boeing produced over 1,400 of the planes before the most recent redesign of the 747-8 in 2011. So far, airlines have ordered just 31 of the 747-8′s compared to 979 of the more nimble, next-generation long-haul 787 Dreamliner.

There are a few reasons for this. When the 747 was first introduced, it was a technical marvel that was able to fly farther, longer and faster than any other commercial jet, but now Boeing and its main rival Airbus are able to produce smaller planes that can fly the same distances using much less fuel since they only need two engines instead of four. In 1988, the US government began to allow airlines to fly more advanced twin-engine planes over oceans as their technology became adequate for longer-distance routes and planes like the 777 and A330 began to dominate these markets.

Stairway to heaven?

There’s no better rush than climbing the stairs to the top deck.

In economic terms, while a 747 filled to capacity can hold 560 passengers, the cost per-passenger of operating it goes up very fast the fewer seats that are actually filled, and with gas prices at a plateau, unsold seats can mean big losses for airlines. Their size is also a huge handicap in that not every market or route – even major international ones – have enough demand to justify flying one of these aircraft on it, or if they do, airlines have preferred flying several smaller jets over the course of a day rather than one or two large jets in order to give passengers more choices and more options to purchase tickets.

Don’t feel too bad for Boeing, though. It brushes off the impact of the 747 order downsizing and its stock is actually at an all-time high, gaining a whopping 74% this year according to the AP story. That’s thanks to orders of its other popular models like the 737, 777 and the persistently troubled but still popular 787. Not only that, but new versions of the 777 should hold up to 400 passengers, which might make the 747 completely obsolete.

I’m still sorry to see these double deckers go. To me, like a lot of people, they still symbolize the glamor of the jet age when it suddenly became possible to fly anywhere on the globe at the drop of a hat on one of these gleaming, rocket-like man-made marvels. Still, after experiences aboard newer aircraft like the 777-300ER and 787, there’s plenty to enjoy about flying, so it won’t keep me down for too long!

What do you think about the 747? Share your thoughts and memories below.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Ruthlessly Absurd

    I haven’t flown one for 13 years, and I’m very excited to do so next year on NRT-ICN. They’re iconic, even if somewhat obsolete, and I’ll be sad when they’re all gone. Thankfully the 747-8 means that won’t be for decades

  • CR

    How does one find out if the BA 747 MIA-LHR-MIA is “old” first or “new” first? Thanks.

  • Beau Sorensen

    I’ve done 4 flights on 747s – one in coach on the old United, then business on Northwest, Delta, and Korean. You’re right, there’s nothing like walking up the stairs to that upper deck cabin. I especially liked the spiral staircase (though I see why they moved to the straight one) on the 747-200 that NW had.

  • Cory

    Never been on the top deck and only been on one 3 times, twice between Bankok and Phuket so I was hardly seated before we landed. I do think it is a damn sexy plane though, and am sad to see their use reduced for my airplane porn trips to airports like LAX, SFO, etc.

    I love the 777′s as well, and have yet to be on an A380 or a 787. But even the A380 doesn’t get me nearly as excited as seeing the 747.

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    I have very sadly never had the opportunity to fly one of these and I probably need to get on it before they stop flying commercial all together.

    Post idea: The Best 747 Routes Still in Service

  • Dinzie
  • Garrett

    Spent lots of time when I was younger on JAL’s 747′s…even got upstairs a couple times…more recently a lot of back and forth (LAX-AMS-LAX) on the KLM ones, but only on the lower deck. Have one more flight scheduled for the remainder of the year on KLM, and after reading this article I’m switching my seat to the upper deck. It’s always fun to look up from downtown and see them flying overhead at night…will be sad to see them go (if they do go).

  • Garrett

    BTW if you want to get on the upper deck of one of these and don’t have plans for Thanksgiving, KLM World Business is SUPER SUPER SUPER cheap for flights departing Monday 25-Nov through 28-Nov and returning 2-Dec. LAX-AMS-LAX $2450…Air France has same deal to CDG (dates are a little different). Can’t imagine it will ever be cheaper than that

  • Jeff

    As a pilot, I believe the 747 is the safest airplane ever built. It was engineered and built during an era of American pride and competency. I relax when I board a 747. Never been on a dreamliner, but can’t say I’ll take particuar comfort in it’s safety record, as I do on a 747.

  • wiznick

    I read about this few days ago and changed two segments on my next award ticket to fly new Lufthansa business class in 747-8. Should be good.

  • CR

    Thanks for that, Dinzie.

  • shay peleg

    Somehow i feel the same on a 747

  • Ben Price

    Great article Brian.

  • Grwg

    I love the 747 as well and will be verysad when they are gone. The only better plane in the sky is the Airbus a380 which is even a smoother roomier ride. I agree I like being upstairs and there is not like sitting up top. I really enjoy Emirate s first on the a380 and prefer it by a mile to Lufty’s first on the 747 like in your photos. I think a shower and a suite is better use of first class space then a separate bed and seat.

    I am surprised that airlines won’t pay the premium to operate the more enjoyable larger aircraft. As a consumer I always think bigger is better.

  • RetTraveler00

    I have had the wonderful opportunity to fly First Class on a 747 on many trips. My first was from Dallas (Love Field) to Oakland in 1972. For years, the plane of choice for trips to HNL from STL and DFW was the 747. If you get a rush from the straight line staircase, just imagine the same climb on a spiral staircase. On the Dallas flights, the upper level was a lounge, with luxurious/open seating, tables with real lamps, serve yourself bar and snacks, and you could talk to the Captains as he went in and out of the cockpit. After the meal down below, if you did not like the single option for a movie, you could just go up top. Life was good. OK, so there were no lie flat beds.
    Fast forward all these years, and I have two transatlantic flights on BA scheduled next year IAH to LHR, originally using 777 equipment. To my delight, I recently received notification that the equipment was changed to 747′s. Add that to another 747 flight from JNB to LHR on one of these trips, I could not be happier.
    Technology advancement is inevitable, but [as always] some things in the
    past are what fond memories are made of.

  • Fore!

    Is there a good place to find out who flies a 747 out of BOS? Does anyone here know? I’ve been talking for years about flying on the upper deck sometime and it might be time to just book something and do it – especially now that I have a little kid of my own to share the experience with.

  • jjbj

    I actually flew upstairs a few X on JAL in Y before I discovered miles & points.. Next to the window seat there was an 8″ wide cubby hole you could lean over on, adding to your space. The only remotely serviceable transpac trips in Econ ever. F was up in the nose.

  • ryan ash

    Flying for my 1st and maybe last time on a 747 next month cx First class seat 1A :) i went out of my way to book it since i’m not sure ill be able to take another 747. Im only 27 and i have been flying for one year now even tho im young and haven’t been in the air long it truly is important to me to experience it. Also thanks to blogs like these ive earned over 250k miles in less than a year with less than 25k miles flown.

  • DownwithPointsGuyUpwithMiles

    i’m sad too. can we hug?

  • Aateebee

    The 747-400 is my all-time favorite plane, and I still believe the nosecone is the best seat in the sky. I’ve never made it upstairs…hopefully I do before US carriers take her out of service.

  • al

    Lufthansa still does to FRA

  • Jetlag and Mayhem

    I was on the last 747 flight from LHR-HKG. As a frequent 747 flyer over the years, I was very sad to say goodbye to this sweet ride! Not that I got to sit upstairs much! It’s a beautiful, iconic plane and even the pilots seemed quite emotional as they talked about it during the welcome message. I wrote an ode to the 747 here!
    http://www.jetlagandmayhem.com/help-me-fly/airlines/british-airways/farewell-the-747-on-london-to-hong-kong-route/

  • Warren

    B744 with LH in first class is like flying a private jet! B747SP can cruise at 45000 ft. very nice and very exclusive not like the concert hall A380.

  • Charlie

    I’ve never been upstairs on a 747. :( Because I’ve only been in F on UA, CA, and CX! ;) It’s a surreal feeling being in row 1 on a TPAC takeoff. The nose is sort of hanging out there in space well above the wings, and the whole experience feels like slow motion. I Love it!

  • GregD

    I’ve enjoyed 747 business flights on JAL, MAS, ELY, QFA, and even TWA. An MAS flight from LAX-KUL was one of my favorites. As a Boeing employee, the “Queen of the Skies” is still my first choice for long-haul travel.

  • Keaton

    I too noticed the decline of the of the 747 and A380 in an article that suggested only two airlines will operate them in 2015. Being 24 years old and just now getting into the world of international travel. (I await the day I have a full passport book). I am sad to see the 747 slowly fade away. I really hope I get to fly on one before they’re all gone.

    Thank you for the fantastic article TPG.

  • Henry Chen

    I’m curious what the US Air Force is going to do for the future Air Force One… they require a four-engine setup for redundancy.

  • peteryared

    I still fly United 747-400 regularly, great business class on the upper deck. Flew on the Pan Am birds a couple of times as a kid. Memories!

  • Jerry

    thanks for sharing this article

  • Lindsay

    I actually work in flight simulation and have extensive experience with the 747-400 and 747-8. It’s a great plane to fly; pilots love it, and it is much more nimble than you would expect. While its use on passenger routes is definitely declining (I believe Lufthansa is still the only airline flying -8 Intercontinentals, with Air China and Korean taking delivery in the upcoming years), 747s will still be around for many decades to come, as they are heavily used in the cargo industry. In fact, Boeing projects the widebody market to grow a bit in the next 20 years (http://www.boeing.com/boeing/commercial/cmo/), so hopefully they will capture some of that with new 747-8s.

  • Ryan

    Air France and BA too

  • Tom
  • mark

    I recently read articles about just this. Buy the time they are ready for new planes the 747 may be obsolete. With the alternative being a 777 which they don’t like because of the 2 engines. I don’t think it would look too good for the President to be flying around on an A380 but that is really the only other option with 4 engines.

  • Jim Healy

    Uppper deck UA 747-400 SYD-SFO is my favorite flight ever. It’s so quiet and with only 12 seats feels like private jet (or what I imagine one to be like!). I hope to take one last trip before they switch to the 777 in 2014.

  • Troy

    I like to read what you have to write but I ve just read the AP article on this story and on some lines you lift it word for word. lets me original ok

  • Johnny

    My wife and I just flew our first this past June on Lufthansa upper deck with only 8 seats (and 8 beds) from Bangkok to Frankfurt. It was my favorite 1st class experience so far. Planning to try more soon.

  • Jenny

    As I was reading the article, I thought back to my honeymoon trip where we sat in the top deck for our business class flight from SFO to BKK. All using miles too! I remembered booking the tickets a year in advance just so I could get my pick of seats. Love the exclusive experience of being in your own separate floor away from the noise.

  • aaa

    1973 I flew first class on Pan Am’s 747 to Rome. We dined upstairs, in the restaurant, where a stewardess cut us slices of roast beef tableside.

  • NYCBK123

    It’s nice to see you and other people appreciating 747s as much as I do! The only 747s I have been on are on airlines that no longer exist. TWA domestic flights years ago (wish we still had transcontinental 747s flights!) and international on Northwest. I guess the Northwest planes are Delta now but I still haven’t been on another one since! Might do a BA 747 across the pond next year…

  • Lonetree

    Boeing will make a modified 747-8 for the Air Force. They’ll still be making them as cargo planes for a while, that was their original design purpose. We still fly B-52s produced in the early 1950′s after all.

  • Brian J

    I got spoiled on the upper deck with a few rounds of United’s SFO-LHR 747-400 route over the summer. I went through a bit of shock and disbelief when I couldn’t find it for some trips later this year… I went so far as to call United and ask “what did you do with the 747???” I’m going to miss that private, spacious club above it all! I’ll find out how 1C on a 777-200 compares soon…

  • Sheila Thomson

    Age 17, in 1970, I was taking my first trip to Europe, and was lucky enough to fly to Chicago on the new American 747, the only route with the new “jumbo jet” into Phx. The plane was a marvel, and the most exciting part was the economy lounge, where we could relax on couches mid flight. Googling, you can find photos. Apparently most airlines had economy lounges, that were quickly filled with rows of seats after the mid ’70s energy crisis.

  • Jim Wadsworth

    My most memorable 747 flight was in 1973 on TWA Flight #1 leaving JFK around 5:45 pm, bound for LAX. My wife was the purser on the flight with a scant 3 years seniority and I was in row 1 left aisle. Dinner featured chateaubriand cooked on board and served on the cart with a nice accompanying red Bordeaux wine. What a nice memory of a time long ago.

  • Austin

    A 340

  • DJOOLZ

    AKL-SYD on QF in 1981. Used to fly on JAL a lot where upstairs was coach – big disappointment climbing the stairs for that!

  • Guest

    I was hired as a Pan Am flight attendant in 1970, the first year of the 747, and I flew them around the world almost exclusively for the next 33 years, ending at United. We loved these aircraft, and I, too, am sorry to see them being phased out.

  • Karen Hoover

    I was hired the year the 747’s first debuted, in 1970, as a flight attendant for Pan Am, and for the next 33 years flew the 747, almost exclusively, around the world, ending my career at United. I loved this aircraft, and am sorry to see it is being phased out.

  • Matt C.

    I just got back from flying the Cathay Pacific 747 in First from Manila to Hong Kong. I spoke at length with the FA who told me that they relegated the 747 to the short-haul routes since they are too fuel hungry for the long-hauls, that they’ll be retired soon, and she’s sorry to see them go. I booked it specifically so I could try that class of service on the 747 before it’s gone, and it was a great experience. I was actually the only passenger in all of First class, so I had the entire nose section to myself :) Sorry to see these planes go as well.

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