Proving that all good things must come to an end, it looks as though British Airways is about to retire its entire fleet of Boeing 747 jumbo jets with immediate effect.

BA 747s are unlikely to ever fly again

A true icon of the aviation world, the twin-deck Boeing 747 has been in operation for more than 50 years. British Airways is the world’s largest operator of the 747-400 and at one time had 57 of the big birds in its fleet.

All that is coming to an end with the announcement that BA’s 31 Boeing 747 aircraft, fondly known as ‘The Queen of the Skies’, are likely to “have flown their last scheduled commercial service”.

The fuel-hungry, four-engine jumbos (average age: 23 years) were already being phased out by BA, but the devastating impact of coronavirus on the aviation industry has accelerated those plans (BA expects demand for air travel will not reach 2019 levels until 2023 or 2024).

The iconic British Airways Boeing 747 

While BA’s outdated “Club World” business class product is much derided, it was always a pleasure to sit in Club if you were upstairs on the 747, which featured a quiet and spacious business class cabin in a 2-2 set up (compared to 2-4-2 downstairs).

Upstairs in the BA Boeing 747 business class "bubble" 

There was also something special about sitting in first class in the “nose” of the 747 - even though the airline managed to cram 14 suites into the cabin.

"Old" first class on the BA Boeing 747

Avgeeks will recall that, just a year ago, British Airways lovingly re-painted four of its jumbo jets in heritage colours to mark the company’s centenary.

BA is banking on smaller, more efficient jets

The airline has invested heavily in new, modern long-haul aircraft including six A350s and 32 787s which are around 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than the 747.

New arrivals come kitted out with BA’s new business class Club Suite product - which looks a big improvement, with its 1-2-1 layout, and sliding privacy doors.

Commenting on the fleet changes, Alex Cruz, British Airways’ chairman and CEO, said:

“This is not how we wanted or expected to have to say goodbye to our incredible fleet of 747 aircraft. So many people, including many thousands of our colleagues past and present, have spent countless hours on and with these wonderful planes – they have been at the centre of so many memories, including my very first long-haul flight. They will always hold a special place in our hearts at British Airways. As painful as it is, this is the most logical thing for us to propose. The retirement of the jumbo jet will be felt by many people across Britain, as well as by all of us at British Airways.  It is sadly another difficult but necessary step as we prepare for a very different future.”
British Airways "BOAC" liveried aircraft with the Red Arrows

A history of BA’s 747 operations

British Overseas Airways Corporation (the British state-owned airline created in 1939 by the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd.) operated its first 747 London to New York service on April 14, 1971.

In July 1989, the first British Airways 747-400, the aircraft type the airline still flies today, took to the skies.Plane spotters who lined Heathrow’s perimeter fences would watch as the magnificent 747-400 would take off at 180mph (before reaching 565mph in the skies).

For the next decade, the airline took delivery of 56 more of the aircraft, with the final plane delivered in April 1989. At the time, it was the largest commercial aircraft in the world, and remained so until the Airbus A380 was introduced in 2007.

BA has more Boeing 747 aircraft than any other airline

At one point, British Airways operated 57 Boeing 747-400 aircraft. The original aircraft featured 27 First Class seats (and we thought things were bad today!) and 292 Economy seats.

BA Boeing 747 economy class - back in the day!

Dubbed the bubble, the upper deck was known as the ‘club in the sky’ and featured an on-board lounge. The aircraft also saw the world’s very first flat-bed seat, which British Airways pioneered in 1999.

Today’s aircraft can seat up to 345 customers in four classes – First, Club World (Business), World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) and World Traveller (Economy). British Airways recently refreshed the interiors of a number of its 747 aircraft, as they were expected to remain in service for several years to come.

The airline’s jumbo jets are currently grounded at various locations in the UK.

Summing up

As sad as it is to see British Airways say goodbye to a huge piece of its history, the retirement of the gas-guzzling 747 fleet is inevitable, now that demand for air travel has collapsed.

The only hope now is that BA will follow Qantas’ lead and put on a special flight to let fans and passengers say a proper goodbye to the Queen of the Skies.

Did you fly a British Airways 747? What memories do you have?