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We already know that Tuesday marked the end of an era for the United 747, when passengers deplaned the airline’s Queen of the Skies for the very last time after 47 years. United launched Boeing 747 service on July 23, 1970.
I managed to snag the jumbo jet’s most coveted seat, 1A, for the last flight. It didn’t come cheap — in fact, it cost far more than any domestic ticket I’ve purchased to date — but it was worth every penny for the opportunity to sit in the nose of United’s first-class 747 cabin one last time.
TPG Assistant Editor Nick Ellis shared his economy experience shortly after we touched down in Honolulu, and today it’s my chance to chime in about what it was like to fly in one of the 12 “open suites” up in the nose of this iconic plane.
Airport and Boarding
The main event kicked off at 8:00am local time with a celebration at SFO’s Gate 86, where passengers, employees and other travelers passing through the terminal joined a farewell celebration.
I caught United CEO Oscar Munoz long before we made it to 86, though, working his way through a long line of employees and fans. That’s where I first bumped into Michael Green, who really dressed for the occasion after having redeemed 90,000 United miles (earned with his Chase Sapphire Reserve card) to score a seat on the upper deck.
Countless passengers dressed up, from some of the original 747 flight attendants to crew members in ’70s-era uniforms.
I tracked down a special Aloha shirt for the occasion.
At the gate, I had a chance to chat with Wilda Gerideau Squires, on the right, who was offered two tickets for the flight after reaching out to Oscar.
The airline even documented Wilda’s call with the CEO — as you can probably tell, the chance to join this flight was a really big deal for many United employees.
Just before boarding, Oscar took the stage to share some thoughts on the plane’s retirement.
The, around 10:00am, Captain David A. Smith announced boarding for our historic flight.
The CEO himself scanned many of the passengers’ boarding passes, greeting each one as they stepped through the gate.
After Oscar made his way through the Global Services passengers, it was finally my turn to come aboard.
Touring the 747
As most passengers were busy celebrating at the gate, Nick and I had a chance to tour the empty plane, including a visit to the upper deck, which I shared via Facebook Live.
And that upper deck was the place to be — a line formed quickly whenever the seatbelt sign was off during the flight, with a few passengers allowed upstairs at a time.
That’s where I ran into the incredible Sammy, one of the kindest flight attendants I’ve ever encountered. By the end of the flight, the upper-deck passengers I chatted with were clearly very big Sammy fans.
Michael was the only “regular” passenger who managed to score a seat upstairs — apparently when he went to pick a seat one day, the upper deck appeared to be wide open, and his selection of 17J stuck. Lucky man!
Even the passengers in the 3-4-3 economy cabins were thrilled to be onboard.
I really lucked out, though, since I managed to snag 1A. I refreshed the app constantly once I heard the flight was going on sale, grabbed 1A as soon as it appeared and paid cash for the ticket, since for whatever reason award seats never appeared for me.
Being right up in the nose afforded me an incredible forward view during our takeoff roll at SFO.
Being on the final 747 was a thrill in and of itself, but it was the passengers that really made the experience special.
The first-class cabin was filled with some of United’s most frequent flyers — half were million milers, though one passenger in particular had us beat by a very long shot.
Tom often traveled in 1A during his 500+ flights on United’s 747 — naturally, he seemed a bit bummed that it hadn’t been available for the final flight (sorry Tom!).
I had a ton of fun chatting with Tom, but Michael was the star of the show, thanks to his groovy ’70s attire.
My seat assignment made me fairly popular during the flight as well — several passengers came by for a chance to sit in 1A, including my buddy Jason Rabinowitz, whom you probably know as @AirlineFlyer on Twitter.
I was especially envious of one passenger, who had the foresight to bring about a 747 model for his fellow first class passengers to sign.
A Golden Gate Flyover
There were so many incredible moments during our 5-hour trek across the Pacific, but one in particular continued to surface in my chats with fellow passengers — our super-low turn over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Food and Beverage
The food was another highlight, of course. United went all out with a menu designed to rival the courses and entrees served during the glory days of aviation. The celebration began with a 747-wide toast — flight attendants went from nose to tail, delivering Champagne to each and every passenger.
We then worked our way through a very special farewell menu.
The meal was so outstanding that I decided to detail it in full here. I’m not kidding when I say this was the best meal I’ve ever had on a US airline, and every other passenger I chatted with seemed to agree.
There were countless photo ops, including the coolest drink cart I’ve ever seen.
Even though a maintenance delay afforded us an extra hour onboard, eventually it was time to say goodbye to the Queen. For ground crews, the farewells started when we pushed back at SFO.
Even the airport’s fire department lined up to wish us well.
Finally, during our approach to Honolulu, the tower offered a “missed approach,” which would have taken us around the island of Oahu one last time. Unfortunately the captain didn’t feel comfortable with the remaining fuel, so we landed at HNL as planned.
The fun didn’t stop when we pulled up to the terminal, though. Ramp workers installed a special lei, and airport employees handed each passenger a flower lei of their own as we walked into the gate area for a final farewell party.
Words cannot describe how special it felt to be a part of this historic celebration — I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Fortunately, there are still plenty of opportunities to fly the Queen of the Skies on other carriers. I had an incredible flight on Thai’s 747-400, and this very evening I’ll be traveling to Seoul aboard a Korean Air 747-8.
While it’s no longer possible to fly a 747-400 operated by United, Delta’s farewell has yet to come — I highly recommend snagging a seat on one of those final flights this December.
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