The Slow Decline Of Air India’s Boeing 747 Operations

This week the Indian Government confirmed that Air India will not dispose of its last remaining B747-400s, although none are currently scheduled to operate in the rest of 2021. This is in stark contrast to large numbers of carriers withdrawing fuel-inefficient quadjets in the wake of COVID. Air India has four B747-400s parked – VT-ESO, VT-ESP, VT-EVA, VT-EVB – with an average age of 26.1 years. We look at the type’s operation.

Air India B747-400
Saudi Arabia was the main country to welcome Air India’s B747-400s between 2005-2020, followed by the United States via different European countries. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia.

Air India’s B747-400s

Air India has never been a huge B747-400 operator, with 10 operated over the years, ch-aviation.com indicates. Nine of these were standard -400s (IATA code: 744), while the remainder was a B747-400M, a combi (code: 74E).

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The airline’s last four 744s all have 423 seats: 385 in economy; 26 in business; and 12 in first. They were delivered directly to Air India between 1993 and 1996, and the carrier owns all. Their ages suggest that they have meager ownership costs, which must be a key reason for being retained. Indeed, according to ch-aviation.com’s aircraft value indicator, which uses Collateral Verifications LLC estimates, the 744s would, if leased, attract a monthly rate of just $75,000-90,000.

Air India's use of the B747-400
In 2005, the type had 40% of the airline’s total capacity. Image: Simple Flying using data from OAG.

Mumbai was all-important for the B747-400

If all years from 2005-2020 are added up, Air India’s B747-400s flew 32.4 million seats, based on analyzing schedules information from OAG. Some 10 Indian airports saw the quadjet on scheduled services in these 15 years, with Mumbai by far the most important airport. Indeed, it had nearly four times as many seats as number-two, Delhi.

Air India B747-400
Air India used this B747-400, VT-ESN, between 1993 and 2013. It is seen arriving at London Heathrow, with Mumbai-Heathrow the number-one route for the B747-400. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia.

12 countries saw the type

Air India used the B747-400 to 12 countries between 2005 and 2020. These 12 include some with extremely limited services, such as Afghanistan (2017), Hong Kong (2010), Kuwait (2006-2007), and the UAE (variously between 2010-2012). In 2010, Air India even had two flights from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai via Dubai.

Air India B747-400
One-stops, including Mumbai-Hyderabad-Jeddah, were enormously important. Photo: Sean D. Silva via Wikimedia.

Saudi Arabia was the number-one nation

Despite these very limited operations, the 744 revolved around five countries, as follows. Saudi had almost twice as many seats as the US, with Jeddah and Riyadh having a near-equal amount. Mumbai-Hyderabad-Jeddah had the most capacity, followed by Kochi-Kozhikode-Jeddah and Trivandrum-Kozhikode-Riyadh. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been virtually the only country to see the 744.

  1. Saudi Arabia
  2. United States
  3. United Kingdom
  4. France
  5. Germany
Air India B747-400 routes to the US
Air India’s 744s operated to five US airports almost fully via Europe. Image: GCMap.

Air India’s B747-400s to Europe

The Indian flag carrier last used the type to Europe in 2009. The UK (London Heathrow) and Germany (Frankfurt) were both served in that final year, and France (Paris CDG) the year before. Indeed, Mumbai-Heathrow had more capacity than any other 744-operated route between 2005-2020, OAG reveals.

Air India B747-400
The author spent about eight months traveling around India in his late teens. He has good memories knowing that his (late) father watched as the Air India B747-400 he was on took off on its return journey from Heathrow to Delhi. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia.

To the USA via Europe

Europe, and especially Heathrow, was served in its own right, but significantly also for one-stop service to the US, with Chicago, Los Angeles, New York JFK, and Newark all served in this way. As such, the US also saw Air India’s B747-400s regularly until 2009. Mumbai-Paris CDG-Newark was the most-served, followed by Delhi-Heathrow-JFK.

But this wasn’t the end of the line for the 744 across the North Atlantic, as Air India used the type on a very minimal basis in 2017 and 2019. Bangalore-Delhi-San Francisco operated in March and April 2017, followed by two services in December 2019.

What are your memories of Air India’s quadjets? Let us know in the comments.

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