Farewell to a queen: What it was like to be on the last revenue flight of a Qantas 747-400
In airline fleets all around the world, the Boeing 747 -- the Queen of the Skies -- is abdicating her throne. Qantas is no exception. As with most other 747 operators, the Australian airline is phasing out the inefficient four-engine vessel for newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Although it was a relatively late adopter of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Qantas is going all in on the newer aircraft. As the airline takes delivery of brand-new Dreamliner aircraft, it's retiring the longest-serving aircraft in its almost 100-year history.
Qantas took delivery of its first Boeing 747 in August 1971, only about a year and a half after the first one entered service with Pan Am. The aircraft revolutionized the airline. By 1979, Qantas had retired the last of its Boeing 707s and become the world's only all-Boeing 747 airline, a designation it held until 1985, when it took delivery of its first 767s.
But the Qantas 747 won't make it to the half-century mark. The airline plans to retire the last of its Boeing 747s by the end of 2020, after 49 years.
As a way to celebrate the retirement of its last 747-400 powered by Rolls Royce engines (registration VH-OJU), Qantas scheduled a special "Points Plane" charter flight from Sydney (SYD) to Los Angeles (LAX). All 364 seats on the aircraft were initially only bookable through Qantas Points. AvGeeks quickly bought out the business and premium economy cabins, but the economy cabin didn't fill up, so the airline eventually opened seats for general purchase.
I had the honor of representing TPG on this special flight. Here's what it was like.
VH-OJU: Those five letters might not mean much to you, but that's the registration of the aircraft that was celebrating its final revenue flight with Qantas. The aircraft, named "Lord Howe Island," was delivered brand new in 2000 as the airline's 51st Boeing 747. This aircraft has since operated over 90,000 flight hours and covered more than 70 million kilometers, or 43 million miles.
While it's bittersweet for Qantas to be saying goodbye to its last remaining Rolls-Royce-powered Boeing 747s, this isn't the end of the road for this airframe. In the tweet above, Qantas teased that the aircraft's "new owner will take care of her. We’ll reveal more later this week." But the secret was out on the flight: Rolls-Royce has purchased the aircraft from Qantas and plans to turn the airframe into a test aircraft for new engines.
When I headed to Sydney Airport for this special last flight, I caught a quick glimpse of the star of the day, parked in a corner of the airfield closest to the highway. It seemed the ground staff wanted to show off the aircraft during its last visit to Sydney.
When I arrived at the airport a few hours before departure, I checked the departure board and noticed that QF Flight 99 was missing. Jet lag introduced doubts, and I frantically checked whether I had the right date before I realized it was technically a charter flight so wouldn't show up on the board.
There were numerous self-service check-in and bag-check kiosks, but I bypassed them to head to the Qantas first-class check-in -- I had access thanks to Oneworld Emerald elite status through American Airlines. Despite having flown multiple Qantas flights, I still hadn't departed from its home base in Sydney, so I was curious about the experience.
A security agent for U.S.-bound flights met me at the entrance and completed the standard questioning. Within minutes, I'd checked my bag, switched seats to an empty row and was off to fast-track immigration and security. Both were a breeze.
I headed to lunch in the Qantas first-class lounge. I truly never get tired of the Qantas lounges' salt-and-pepper calamari.
As the gate for our flight was announced in the lounge, I noticed a number of passengers perk up. And then the conversations started. Passengers who'd been quietly sitting next to each other in the lounge suddenly realized they were near a kindred spirit. An older gentleman seated next to me told me he "booked straight away" when the special flight was announced, and was thrilled to have gotten a business-class seat.
As I was about to head down to the gate, I saw that our aircraft was being towed from its parking spot across the airfield to the gate.
I know from experience that Qantas can throw a party. So I was surprised to get to the gate and find that there was no celebration there. Instead of formal festivities, AvGeeks from all over the world gathered outside the fenced-off gate area and swapped stories about special Qantas flights and our passion for the 747.
I met Kiwis — as they described themselves — who'd flown in from New Zealand for the flight. They'd made their own farewell T-shirts showing the other four other flights they'd taken on this aircraft.
The security agents initially seemed unaware that anything special was happening, but quickly caught on. They skirted the rules to allow passengers into the gate area to snap photos out the window of the parked aircraft before shooing us out. It wasn't long before they started taking selfies with the aircraft themselves.
Before boarding, the cabin crew stopped to take a group shot inside the secured area.
When the flight crew showed up, a few AvGeeks and some AvGeek-converted security agents were able to snap a few photos — underneath an unfortunately placed ad featuring the Airbus A380.
These informal celebrations delayed boarding a bit, but no one seemed to mind. Boarding began with families with infants before starting with business class and Oneworld elite members, which is when I hurried on.
Aboard the Queen
Although this was the last revenue flight of this particular Qantas 747-400, there are still six 747-400ER aircraft left in the fleet. So while I'm focusing most of this piece on the experience of this last flight, let's take a tour inside the three-class Qantas 747.
There are 58 business-class seats spread through the nose of the aircraft (2-2 and 2-2-2 configurations), the upper deck (2-2) and a few rows on the main deck behind the boarding door (mostly 2-3-2).
The seating arrangement is great for couples traveling together, but it means that quite a few seats don't have aisle access.
The cabin crew confirmed that 5B and 5J are the best seats in business class. These are the only two solo seats in business class that don't have a seatmate, and they have virtually unlimited legroom. However, it's a bit far from the seat to the window, so window-seats lovers may want to avoid them.
Behind the main deck business-class cabin is the premium economy cabin, arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration.
Again, this arrangement is great for couples traveling together, especially at the windows.
One peculiar aspect of these seats: no seatback inflight-entertainment screens. Instead, the IFE screens are on arms that extend from beneath the seat. These screens need to be stowed for taxi, takeoff and landing.
The economy cabin is arranged in 31 rows of mostly 3-4-3 seating for a total of 270 seats. Ahead of the third emergency exit door, there's a minicabin consisting of just two rows.
Then there are 11 rows of seats in a main cabin with red fabric upholstery.
And another 18 rows in the rear cabin with green upholstery.
Anticipating a full flight, I'd originally selected an emergency-exit-row window seat, which is a pretty solid option, considering the emergency slide isn't too close and you still get a window.
But I learned at check-in that there were over 100 empty seats on the flight. So I switched to an empty three-seat row farther back.
The seating arrangement yields a seat width of about 17.75 inches. That's a little wider than an average economy seat nowadays, but it's not exactly spacious.
At the rear of the aircraft, the narrowing of the fuselage requires the airline to switch from 3-4-3 seating to 2-4-2.
The last two rows are arranged 0-4-0 with emergency exits on either side. Thankfully for anyone who gets stuck in the last row, the seats can recline.
Economy seats have 32 inches of pitch. While the seatback measures almost 4 inches thick, the thickness is much less at the bottom, leaving plenty of legroom.
The tray table measures 18 inches wide by 8.5 inches deep, can be extended by about 3.5 inches and has a cup divot. The seatback has one large storage pocket with a smaller pocket hanging off the front of the main pocket. This smaller pocket is just the right size to store your phone, boarding pass and passport.
The small overhead "lockers" hail from a generation when fewer passengers carried on bags. Overhead bin space might be an issue on full flights.
The underseat storage area is a bit obstructed by two thin inflight entertainment boxes, but there's still plenty of space. One feature that's fairly unique on Qantas: the leg sling. In place of a hard footrest, these seats have an elastic sling that you can use to cradle your feet.
The headrests can be raised and have folding wings to cradle your head.
What with the folding headrest, the foot sling and the 5-inch recline, this is a pretty decent product to sleep in.
On this flight, the lavatories were impressively clean and well-maintained for a 20-year-old aircraft. There were six bathrooms for 270 economy seats, equaling one lavatory for every 45 economy passengers. However, thanks to the light load on this flight, I never needed to wait for a bathroom.
The crew made multiple passes through the cabin after takeoff to hand out amenity kits, menus and a bottle of water for each passenger. The crew instructed passengers to hold on to the half-liter bottle of water so that it could be refilled through the flight.
For dinner, economy passengers had a choice of: salad of smoked salmon with edamame beans, zucchini and black bean noodles; braised wagyu beef with mushrooms and baby onions, polenta and roasted carrots; pot roast chicken with rosemary jus, barley, carrots and broad beans.
I tried to order the beef, but the crew had just run out on both sides of the cabin, so I opted for the smoked salmon. I wasn't quite sure how a salad would be served in economy, and the answer turned out to be by not including any lettuce.
Along with the main course, flight attendants served warm garlic, sea salt and oregano focaccia on top of a napkin, with coconut-and-rosella jelly cake and a chocolate.
In addition to the standard economy drink options of juice, soft drinks, coffee, tea and water, passengers could select from Australian wines, spirits, beers and even hot chocolate.
At the bottom of the menu, Qantas provided helpful reminders of the @qantas social media handle and a suggested hashtag of #qantasfood. Of course, the lack of Wi-Fi on board meant passengers had to wait until after arrival to post photos to social media.
Crew members put out warm snacks in the middle galley. In the rear galley, there was a snack bar containing seemingly endless boxes of Tim Tam bars and Carman's muesli bites. Despite the light load, this snack bar was practically wiped out by the end of the flight.
A little more than two hours before arrival, the crew flipped on the lights and started serving breakfast. Passengers had a choice: leek-and-potato frittata with bratwurst sausage, bacon and creamy spinach; or a fresh fruit plate. I had the frittata, and, although it was tasty, it was very greasy.
Technically, this was a charter flight. That meant that the crew working the flight was chosen from the airline's subset of flight attendants who'd completed additional charter training.
Flight attendant J.P. shared stories of flying around for weeks with the same set of passengers, where crew and passengers quickly came to know each other on a first-name basis. I took that opportunity to introduce myself, and the crew referred to me by name the entire flight.
This crew was clearly thrilled to be part of this special flight. When passengers asked to take photos with them, flight attendants often retrieved their cameras so that they could also get a photo.
The crew happily obliged the Kiwis by having everyone sign their specially made tea towel, which they insisted they were going to frame as soon as they got home.
When passing through baggage claim, I overheard one flight attendant thank another for sending over a great photo she took of Sydney Harbour at departure, adding that it was already her phone's background image. Since that scene was on the other side of the aircraft, I was curious to see the photo myself, and the flight attendant offered to send it to me as well.
Outside of the final-flight excitement, the crew provided excellent service during meals, in the galley and throughout the flight. During the middle of the short night, crew members passed through often to provide water, snacks and drinks.
While there wasn't much fanfare at the gate, a number of Qantas employees gathered to say goodbye to VH-OJU. Most of these employees were by the gate, but a couple were visible out my window.
As we taxied to the runway, the captain came on the speaker again to share some stats for the AvGeek-heavy passengers: We would be taking off at a weight of 373 tons, with 151 tons of that being fuel. The pilots would rotate the aircraft at 167 knots and then climb at a speed of 177 knots.
I anticipated applause as the aircraft lifted off for her last time from her Australian home. Instead, there was a reverent silence. For most passengers, this flight wasn't a celebration, it was a memorial.
As soon as the seat-belt sign was turned off, there was a mad rush for the empty rows. Passengers who had dutifully taken their assigned seats for takeoff embarked on a gold rush for "poor man's business class" -- an empty row all to themselves. I considered joining them, knowing that I'd sleep much better in a four-seat middle row than a window-side three-seat row that I already had. But, the allure of having a window for the journey was too much to pass up.
With Sydney on the east coast of Australia, it didn't take long before the aircraft left the Australian continent for the final time.
However, that wouldn't be the last part of Australia that it would fly over. Fittingly for an aircraft named after Lord Howe Island, the last piece of Australia that the aircraft ended up flying over was Lord Howe Island, a small island around 350 miles off of the Australian mainland.
Considering the island's tiny size, I suspect that the pilots -- and their dispatchers on the ground -- intentionally routed over it. Unfortunately, the cloud cover and our altitude of 31,000 feet meant that passengers could barely see it out the window.
It's fitting that a Qantas Points plane would be operated by a plane named after Lord Howe Island, as it is one of the highest-value economy redemptions you can get using Qantas Points.
A couple of hours later, we passed into darkness over the Pacific Ocean, and passengers settled into their mostly empty rows. It seems that passengers were more interested in enjoying having a row to themselves than socializing in the galley with fellow 747 fans and AvGeeks.
As with takeoff, there was no applause at landing. Instead, passengers seated in window seats were glued to the window, with many of them recording video or taking photos.
Upon arrival at LAX, we taxied and parked at a remote stand. Despite the light load, it seemed to take forever for passengers to disembark. When I reached the upper-deck stairs, I saw why: A number of passengers were visiting the upper deck, hoping to visit the cockpit.
The pilots patiently stuck around letting passengers tour the flight deck. The captain happily provided his cap to each passenger as they cycled through his seat, while the cabin service manager took photos.
Of course, I wasn't going to give up this chance to sit at the controls.
The final bus to the terminal waited as the final passengers and crew trickled out of the aircraft, unfortunately tightening the connection for passengers who had a flight to catch. On the positive side, there was no wait for a Global Entry kiosk, all checked bags had arrived on the belt, and -- although the standard line was long -- customs didn't take long for Global Entry members.
End of service
For a special flight filled with Qantas frequent flyers marking the end of service for an aircraft, the mood on board was somber and reserved. Despite word spreading that this jet would have a new lease on life, it almost seemed as if passengers were treating the flight as a memorial for the aircraft.
The journey itself was as good as you were going to get in economy. The surprisingly light load allowed many passengers to have an entire row to themselves, which certainly helped make the 13-hour journey more pleasant. And the crew members seemed to do everything they could to made the flight as special and comfortable as they could.
Stay tuned to TPG's further coverage of VH-OJU -- including our experience flying with the aircraft to its new owners and a tour of Qantas' Los Angeles maintenance hangar.
All photos by the author.