What Happened To Air France’s Boeing 747s?

Air France prematurely retired its remaining Airbus A380 aircraft earlier this year. This was a result of the sharp drop in passenger demand levels caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, this is not the only large airliner that it has retired in recent years. Indeed, 2016 saw the departure of the airline’s remaining Boeing 747 fleet. But what was the reason for this withdrawal?

Air France 747 taxiing CDG
An Air France Boeing 747 taxiing at the French flag carrier’s hub airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Getty Images

What role did the Boeing 747 have with Air France?

Air France operated its first Boeing 747-100 on June 3rd, 1970. This was just a few months after the aircraft had made its debut with Pan Am. Air France deployed its first 747 on the lucrative Paris-New York route.

At the peak of use, Air France deployed 52 different Boeing 747s. These ranged from the initial 747-100 model to six converted 747 freighters. These conversions doubled the lifespans of the former passenger aircraft. In fact, in operating the -100, -200, -300 and -400 models, Air France would go on to use almost every model of the Queen of the skies. The only variants that the airline did not utilize were the shorter 747SP and the recently developed 747-8.

The aircraft was a dynamic change for the airline. The 747 was able to operate new, direct flights to remote French holiday destinations well outside Europe and connect Paris, the ‘City of Light,’ with the rest of the world. These destinations included the likes of Réunion, an Indian Ocean island off the east coast of Africa. Perhaps the most iconic, however, was, of course, the avgeek’s paradise of Saint-Martin in the Caribbean.

Air France 747 landing SXM
The 747-200 was one of a number of variants operated by Air France to the iconic Caribbean island of Saint-Martin. Photo: Getty Images

Air France’s Boeing 747s were a great equalizer. With such a large capacity, passengers could fly for cheaper than ever before. This opened up France to millions of tourists who could previously only dream of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person, while also unlocking long-haul destinations worldwide for French passengers to savor.

Onboard configuration

The Air France flagship 747-400 had a capacity of 432 passengers in a two-class configuration. Business class was situated in the plane’s nose on the lower deck, with the remainder of the aircraft being configured in economy class. The upper deck was reserved for Flying Blue members and offered economy seats with two inches more legroom. However, these rare seats were tricky to get hold of, as they were nearly always sold out.

The Boeing 747 would be the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft for 37 years. It was eventually surpassed Airbus launched the A380 commercially in 2007.

Air France Airbus A380, KLM Boeing 747, Grounded
The Airbus A380 overtook the Boeing 747 as the world’s largest airliner in the mid-2000s. Photo: Getty Images

Why did Air France retire its 747 fleet?

In 2015, Routesonline reported that Air France was accelerating its 747 retirements. At this stage, there were just five examples of the type in its fleet. By 2016, the airline had just three remaining Boeing 747 aircraft in its fleet. It was then that the French flag carrier admitted that it was “abandoning its last three 747s because they are just too expensive to maintain“.

It slowly replaced the Queen with the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-300ERs. The freighter versions of the Boeing 747 were swapped out for the Boeing 777Fs. When offered, Air France declined to meet with Boeing to discuss investing in the 747-8 as a potential replacement.

Air France 747 CDG Departure
Maintenance costs were a significant factor in the retirement of Air France’s remaining Boeing 747 aircraft in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Many point to the rise of the A380, with its much lower fuel burn per seat, as what spelled the end for Air France’s Boeing 747 fleet. However, it was actually the increase in frequency, rather than the capacity, that led to Air France choosing to retire the type.

The final commercial Air France 747 flight took place on January 11th, 2016, between Paris and Mexico City. A week later, the airline operated farewell circular trips around France using the aircraft. In a press release announcing the farewell flights, the airline stated:

“More than 45 years after the first flight, from Paris to New York on June 3rd 1970, by the aircraft affectionately known as the Jumbo Jet, the company [emotionally] salutes the last flight of this legendary and easily-recognizable aircraft.”

The struggles of its successor

While the Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ was initially seen as Air France’s solution for its departing 747s, the reality has not been so successful. In February 2019, Airbus officially canceled the aircraft’s production, as it was becoming obsolete in a market increasingly dominated by more efficient twinjet airliners. A few months later, Air France announced that it would be retiring its Airbus A380 fleet by 2022. This was despite having only first taken delivery of the type in 2009.

Air France, Airbus A380, Retirement
The coronavirus pandemic has not been kind to Air France’s Boeing 747 successor, the Airbus A380. Photo: Getty Images

However, the drop in passenger demand caused by the present coronavirus crisis forced Air France to take drastic action. In May 2020, the French flag carrier announced it would be retiring its remaining Airbus A380 fleet two years prematurely. This reflects a general trend in larger airliners suffering as a result of the pandemic. For example, Simple Flying recently reported that just 35 passenger-configured Boeing 747s remain in active service.

Ultimately, the Airbus A380 did not prove such a successful investment as the Boeing 747 for Air France. However, in the shape of next-generation aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner,’ it can now look towards a more efficient future.

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