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After 25 years of service in the skies in Asia and around the globe , EVA Air’s final 747 passenger flight touched down in Taipei (TPE) on Monday morning. It was yet another airline retiring its Jumbo Jet for good, just like United Airlines and Delta Airlines will do later this year, as the legendary 747 gets supplanted by twin jets that can do pretty much the same job, but with two fewer engines.
The Taiwanese airline’s farewell to the Queen of the Skies was not, however, a long-haul flight. EVA Air gave the honor to a short flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to TPE, just above one hour, a small hop across the South China Sea for a jet built to stay in the air more than 10 times as long. I was lucky enough to be along for the ride.
History of EVA Air’s 747s
Founded in 1989, EVA Air was relatively late to the 747 scene, taking delivery of its first of seven 747-400 passenger jets in 1992. The airline focused its initial 747s on North American routes, starting with Los Angeles (LAX) in December 1992 and expanding to Newark (EWR), Seattle (SEA), San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK) and finally Vancouver (YVR). Gradually, as EVA introduced the 777-300ER, its 747-400s were phased out from these routes, with YVR being the last to end just last month (July 15, 2017).
The EVA Air 747-400 has a fascinating history: the world’s first ever premium economy cabin debuted on one of them. Along with this debut, EVA Air was the first airline to have four cabins on the same aircraft. Even more fascinating, when the airline switched to a three-class configuration, the upstairs deck got an economy cabin, arranged 3-3 — a rare occurrence for the 747, on which most airlines put a premium cabin upstairs to take advantage of the upper deck’s more exclusive feel. And while the downstairs economy cabins had 33 inches of seat pitch, the upper deck cabin featured a whopping 36 inches between seats.
The Final Departure
At EVA Air’s gate 60 at HKG, the airline set up a banner to mark the occasion.
Passengers and crew took turns for photos with the banner. The atmosphere was excited, but most passengers were there for the special flight, and treated the occasion with the reverence due a retiring legend.
The second-to-last 747 passenger flight — EVA Air Flight #891 from TPE to HKG — touched down a few minutes early. As EVA’s Queen pulled to the gate in Hong Kong one last time, she had plenty of paparazzi waiting at the gate to record her penultimate arrival.
A Final Tour of EVA’s Queen
Our 747-400 (registration B-16411, first flight: April 7, 1998) was arranged in three classes: economy, “Elite Class” premium economy and “Premium Laurel” business class. For this short flight, only two classes were sold: economy and business, allowing 56 lucky passengers to snag a premium economy seat for the cost of an economy ticket.
Well into its late teens and not refurbished due to its impending retirement, the aircraft reflected its age — from low-resolution in-flight entertainment screens to shuddering during takeoff and landing. That said, she’s still a very serviceable bird if you want to pick her up from the desert where she will go soon for long-term storage.
There are two “Premium Laurel” business class cabins: the back cabin contained four rows of 2-2-2 arranged angle-flat seats. These are far from industry-leading at a time when many airlines are abandoning the last of their angle-flat business class seats — especially for flights across the oceans.
The front business class cabin still has these angle-flat seats, but has a more-exclusive 2-2 arrangement with a wide space in the middle.
The “Elite Class” premium economy cabin is in the middle of the aircraft, overlooking the wings, arranged as seven rows of 2-4-2 seating. In addition to 38 inches of pitch, these seats also have a leg rest. Not bad for the world’s first-ever premium economy product.
The downstairs economy cabins featured a tight 3-4-3 configuration with 33 inches of pitch.
The upper deck economy was arranged in ten rows of 3-3 seating with the aforementioned 36 inches of pitch.
In addition to getting a view from the top, those sitting at the window scored a storage compartment under the window as well as some shelf space when the compartment was closed.
In the back of the plane, a hidden door opens to a ladder leading to a surprisingly large eight-bunk crew rest area. Even in the normally hidden crew rest area, EVA Air keeps its green theme consistent.
Each seat contains an in-flight entertainment touchscreen, with a remote in the armrest.
Upon inspection of that remote, I found a rather peculiar feature: seat-to-seat calling. Turning to the passenger behind me, I told him I was going to call him. “You’re what?” he replied as I dialed his seat number. “It’s beeping!” were his next words before accepting the free seat-to-seat call.
The voice sounded clear, but he was just 36 inches away from me. So, I wanted to try it out with someone on another deck of the aircraft. On final approach, I called the USA Today reporter in seat 10K. Geeking out about the feature, we had to hurry to end the call so we could record the final touchdown.
Most passengers appeared to have booked this flight knowing of the occasion, although a few certainly seemed taken aback by all of the excited photographers. The passenger behind me had flown in from Los Angeles just to take this flight. Reporters from Canada (AirlineRoutes) and Seattle (USA Today) had positioned to HKG for the festivities, just like me.
However, most of the passengers I spoke with were from Taipei and Hong Kong. Friends booking this final flight together boarded wearing Boeing t-shirts. The passenger next to me — a student from Taipei — scraped together the funds to make this his first ever 747 flight. Seeing one passenger helping a flight attendant in the galley, I struck up a conversation to find out that she was an EVA Air 747 flight attendant herself. A staple on the Vancouver (YVR) route, she wanted to work this historical last flight herself but didn’t make the cut. So, she booked the flight as a passenger.
Besides the infectious energy, one thing that almost all passengers had in common was a camera, or more often a camera, phone and GoPro. During boarding, lines stretched down the upper deck aisle as passengers waited their turn to capture the open cockpit.
The captain and first officer did their pre-flight paperwork with the help of a tablet. The 400 model, which made its first flight in 1988, was the first 747 with a digital “glass cockpit” in place of the classic steam-gauge dials.
During meal service, passengers circled the cabin crew attempting to capture every moment.
Speaking of meal service, EVA Air managed to squeeze one into just one hour and 14 minutes of flight. In economy, we got an apple-flavored coffee cake, packaged buckwheat and nuts crisps, a cup of water and choice of tea or coffee. Passengers also received a commemorative “Farewell 747-400” dessert package.
Juice boxes were available on demand as the crew hurried through the meal service.
After landing, a flight attendant made one final announcement:
EVA Air’s Boeing 747-400 passenger jet has completed her final flight perfectly. And after more than a quarter of [a] century, EVA is officially retiring her majestic Queen of the Skies from passenger service. Together, we will witness her honorable decommissioning. Thank you for flying EVA Air and joining us to witness this historic retirement.
As we arrived at the gate, the Queen received one last tribute:
More than 15 minutes after arrival, passengers were still going around the aircraft capturing some farewell shots. A line of passengers hoping to meet the captain began forming, with people asking to take a photo with him or ask him to sign their flight logbook — which he patiently did.
Once the final passengers were herded off the aircraft, EVA Air’s Chairman boarded to present the captain with a honorary certificate.
As we disembarked the Queen one last time, it seemed that anything with “747” on it was gone. Passengers seemingly had gone through the cabin hoarding “Do not remove from aircraft”-labeled EVA Air 747 safety cards. I had snagged a shot of one earlier, so you’ll know what to look for on eBay soon.
The festivities weren’t quite over yet; the passengers who were still waiting at the gate 35 minutes after arrival got the opportunity to take photos of the crew.
So concluded the retirement celebration. Not long after arriving, the 747-400 was towed to the Evergreen maintenance hangar to begin the stripping process. Next stop: an aircraft graveyard in the American West, where metal does not rust in the desert air and planes can be stripped for parts — or, on rare occasions, return to the skies, if someone buys them.
What’s next for the pilots? I spoke with the captain before departure. He reminisced on his 17 years flying passengers on the 747 — the only aircraft he’s certified on. But, his 747 duty is not over. He and the first officer will soon switch to flying EVA Air’s 747-400 freighters.
With just a few more airlines with passenger 747-400s still in their fleet, we are counting down the final few of the second-to-last version of the Queen of the Skies. The good news is that her graceful curves will continue to slice through the skies for a while, thanks to, among a few others, British Airways’ refreshed mini-fleet of 747-400s and Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China’s 747-8 versions.
What’s your favorite 747 memory?
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