With Virgin Atlantic retiring its 747s, these are the last jumbo jets you can fly
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This story was originally published on April 9, 2020. It has been updated to reflect the news of the retirement of Virgin Atlantic’s 747s, and to include developments with other airlines.
Yet another airline has just announced the premature demise of its Boeing 747s, bringing to three the total of carriers that ditched their jumbo jets because of the coronavirus.
Virgin Atlantic said on Tuesday that it will retire its seven 747s effective immediately, part of a series of aggressive measures to cope with the drop in demand due to the pandemic. The double-decker jets had been originally scheduled to retire in 2021.
The decision to anticipate its withdrawal from the fleet comes less than a month after a Virgin spokesperson had told us that the airline had “no immediate plans to retire our 747s earlier than already planned” — an indication of how dire its financial situation has become since.
With thousands of airplanes grounded everywhere because of the coronavirus, airlines are being forced to make tough choices about their fleets. Many older airplanes, which cost more in fuel and maintenance, will have to be retired. That means that many fewer Boeing 747s will be left flying when this is over. In fact, two major airlines, KLM and Qantas, have already retired theirs.
Bad news for aviation enthusiasts who cherish the magic of a plane that revolutionized travel, and for flyers who want to experience the unique atmosphere of a 747’s exclusive upper deck. But not all is lost: there will be quite a few 747s left when air travel resumes in earnest after the COVID-19 crisis, and they will keep serving U.S. destinations.
That includes the 747-400 and 747-8 models. Do not expect the latest and swankiest interiors on the 747-400s, which tend to feature seats from the past decade. The more recent -8 models usually have much fresher interior fittings.
Here’s who is still flying the 747 today, and where.
British is the biggest 747 operator in the world, with 28 of the 747-400 model. Only one was flying as of May 5, with the rest grounded, according to fleet-tracking site Planespotters. While not all may return to the skies, British hasn’t changed its plan to retire all 747s in 2024.
Once its 747s return to the U.S., where they served several destinations prior to the disruption, we recommend the upper-deck experience in Club Class, BA’s business offering. As you can see in the image below, TPG UK Director of Content Nicky Kelvin is a fan.
With both 747-400s and 747-8s, Lufthansa sends them all over the world — including on exceptional COVID-19 missions to bring stranded Germans back home from New Zealand. The -8s have a true first class in the nose, while the -400s only have business. You will likely see both in the U.S. once traffic returns. First class in the nose is a truly amazing experience — not the most private first-class seat out there, but worth it, if nothing else, for Lufthansa’s super-posh first-class-only terminal in Frankfurt.
Flying both the -400 and -8 models, Air China is also going to keep its jumbos around for many years. You’re far more likely to find yourself on the -8, because the -400s do not serve the U.S. or even get out of China much.
This is another airline on which you can expect to find a true first class as well as business. We reviewed them, and liked both first in the nose and biz upstairs. You’ll find the 747-8s on services to New York and San Francisco, when Air China resumes a full schedule — assuming that doesn’t change because of the impact of coronavirus.
With Air China and Lufthansa, Korean is one of only three operators worldwide of the 747-8. It has 10, found on U.S. routes to Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Honolulu. It remains to be seen if they’ll come back on all routes once schedules pick up again.
As befits an airline known for sterling service, first class on the 747-8 amazed us, with a 90/100 score in our review. Business got a solid 80, and while we haven’t reviewed economy, we know from experience that long-haul coach class on Korean is among the best in the world in its category. Whatever class you choose, Korean’s 747s are a safe bet if you want to log some more miles on the Queen of the Skies.
Korean Air is also is one of the remaining operators of the -400 model. It has just two, both parked, but will keep them around.
“We will keep operating B747-400s for the time being, and currently do not have a particular timeframe for the phase-out,” Ahhyun Kim, a Korean Air PR representative, told TPG in an email.
South Korea’s other major airline has two passenger 747s. One has been parked at Seoul’s Incheon airport since October of last year and the other has been flying sporadically, and not to the U.S.
The airline’s 747-400s used to be regulars in Los Angeles, but now that route is flown by the Airbus A350, which we reviewed in 2018. With newer A350s coming into the fleet, it’s unlikely that Asiana’s 747s will return to the States in scheduled service.
The Taiwan-based airline has four 747-400s, all currently grounded. They will be retired by the end of the year, and even before the coronavirus crisis they were found only on flights within Asia.
Another longtime 747 operator, Air India has just four left, with no immediate plans to retire them. Booking a seat on one is not easy, as the airline’s schedule puts them unpredictably on various routes, on varying dates. You’re likely to find them on some domestic routes, where a 400-seat long-hauler with true first class plus business is totally overkill. That first class comes in very handy, however, for the other and probably more important job for which Air India keeps its 747s around: transporting the president and prime minister. When it does, the flights always have the identifier AI1, which you can track online, and the call sign “Air India One”.
The government-owned flag carrier of Thailand had eight 747-400s left as of May 5, according to Planespotters. All are grounded.
Thai’s 747s all have first class too, as well as business. We’ve been able to fly Thai’s excellent caviar-and-Dom first class from Australia to Bangkok for a staggeringly low 40,000 United miles, but that deal is not available anymore. If you’re hankering for the unique experience of flying in the 747’s nose — where the curvature of the fuselage lets you see slightly in front of the aircraft from window seats in row 1 — you can get nine hours in Thai first for just $1,903 one-way in January, from Sydney to Bangkok. That depends, though, on whether Thai will still be flying 747s after the COVID-19 crisis. The airline is losing money and may retire older planes, a government official told Reuters last month. Its gas-guzzling 747s, two decades old, are obvious candidates for the pink slip.
All nine of the 747s in the fleet of this subsidiary of state-owned flag carrier Aeroflot — Rossiya means “Russia” in Russian — are currently grounded in Moscow, but there are no plans to retire them.
In busier times, they ferry sun-seeking Russians to places like Bangkok, Goa or Dubai, in high-density layouts with up to 537 seats. That’s one of the highest seat counts on a 747, almost double British Airways’. You can also find them on some scheduled flights operated on behalf of Aeroflot; some of these are among the very rare domestic runs operated by 747s. Want to fly from Moscow to Khabarovsk in Siberia, almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean? A Rossiya 747 can take you on this eight-hour domestic flight for $200 in coach one way.
If you go, you might find yourself aboard Rossiya’s special-color 747, painted to evoke a Siberian tiger — one of the most stunning aircraft flying today.
As a U.S.-based flyer, your chance of flying on one of the five 747-400s with this Spanish leisure airline is limited mostly to the times they substitute for a Norwegian 787 grounded for maintenance. This is known as “wet leasing,” a common practice in the airline industry; if an airline is short a plane, with no spare available, it contracts one from another carrier. Wamos 747s are often used for this purpose, and because of its inherent unpredictability, it’s hard to know where they will fly, when and for whom. Not that you’d necessarily want to be on one; when TPG’s own Zach Honig was, he called the experience “almost hilariously bad.”
French airline Corsair has three former United birds which it uses for scheduled flights from Paris to the French Caribbean and Mauritius, as well as charters. With a very dense 533-seat layout, they’re not going to offer the best ride you can find in a 747, and there are plans to phase them out by next year, according to Flight Global.
This U.S.-based airline is a big name in cargo, with 37 freighter-only jumbos. In fact, if you count freighters, it’s the biggest 747 operator in the world. It also has five passenger 747-400s, but those are used only for charter services — for example flying U.S. service members to and from overseas locations.
The airline said last year it wanted to retire its two 747s in 2020, but they’re still in the fleet. Neither has flown in months, and 747s can’t be found in the airline’s schedule.
The closest you may come to seeing one is as a model in an Iraqi Airways office.
This is a tough one to fly on. Iranian carrier Mahan Air’s sole 747-400 takes to the sky rarely, and only from Tehran to the Iranian free-trade zone of Kish Island or to Baghdad, Iraq, according to Flightradar24 records. Foreigners won’t have an easy time getting on the only passenger 747 remaining in service in Iran.
This particular 747 also has an interesting tale, entwined with international politics. Fleet-tracking sites show that Mahan acquired it used in 2009 from Azerbaijani airline Blue Sky. Because of U.S. sanctions on Iran, Mahan Air could not have bought it from its original owner, United Airlines, which had dismissed it in 2003 and stored it in the desert. It sat idle there for three years until Blue Sky picked it up in 2006.
The two 747s used by this Saudi airline to ferry Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina from airports in Asia and Africa are pretty much impossible to fly on unless you are, well, a Muslim pilgrim who lives in Asia or Africa. They are both registered in Moldova and flown by Moldovan charter operator Terra Avia. Today, both are grounded.
Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy
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