Jumbo Days Are Over: The Enormous Decline Of The Boeing 747

There is no disguising it: the days of the Boeing 747 are nearly over, at least in a passenger sense. In 2004, the 747, across all variants, had 18.5% of widebody flights. This year it’s less than 1%. While the B747-400 has been very predominant, the more modern B747-8 – with Lufthansa, Air China, and Korean Air – is now in the lead.

United B747-400
United retired the B747-400 in November 2017. Photo: Ken H via Flickr.

The decline of the passenger B747

Between 2004 and 2021, when flights by passenger B747s has declined enormously, the type still had more round-trips – 3.8 million – than the B777-300ER. However, context is needed. In these 17 years, the passenger 747 had just 8% of all widebody moments, OAG data reveals, reducing from 18.5% in 2004 to only 0.69% (!) in pandemic-hit 2021.

With nearly three-quarters of these 3.8 million flights, the B747-400 has been by far the most important variant. However, multiple airlines, including British Airways, Corsair, El Al, KLM, Qantas, Thai Airways, and Virgin Atlantic, have withdrawn it as coronavirus persevered.

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This means that the much newer B747-8 has become the most-used variant for the first time. However, only Lufthansa, Air China, and Korean Air have it in seat configuration, and Korean Air plans to withdraw the B747-8 by 2031.

The decline of the passenger Boeing 747
Eight airlines filed to use the B747 in 2021: Lufthansa; Air China; Mahan Air; Korean Air; Iraqi Airways; Asiana; and Air India. Between them, they have barely 10,000 flights. Iraqi Airways has mainly used it from Baghdad to Minsk. Source: OAG.

Rare types revisited

It’s worth remembering some of the other passenger 747 variants used since 2004 and now confined to the history books. Some of the author’s favorite variants include the following, many with surprisingly recent operating histories:

  • B747-100 with Saudia (last used on a scheduled basis in 2010)
  • B747-200: Iran Air (2015), Northwest (2007), PIA (2005), Biman Bangladesh (mainly ’08-10)
  • B747-300: Air France (2007), Mahan Air (2012), Qantas (2008), Surinam (2009), TAAG (2011)
  • B747SP: Iran Air (2016) and Saudia (2009)

Iran Air’s B747SP stands out even among many other ultra-rare aircraft. It had four SPs, with EP-IAC, delivered in 1977, withdrawn in 2016. It was used from Tehran Imam Khomeini to Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing in the final year.

Biman used this B747-200 wet-leased from Kabo Air. It was originally used by Northwest (as you can tell from the hybrid livery!) and is now stored in Kano, Nigeria. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia.

22 passenger airlines used the 747 in 2019

In 2019, the year before the quadjet’s exit speeded up quicker than expected, the 747 had almost 76,000 round-trip passenger flights. Some 22 airlines used it, OAG and Cirium data indicate. British Airways, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Air China, Virgin, China Airlines, Qantas, and Asiana had the most flights.

More interesting, perhaps, are the less usual services. These include Royal Air Maroc (using Wamos Air equipment) for Hajj reasons from Morocco to Jeddah and Medina, and SunExpress temporarily using the B747-400 (again from Wamos) from Turkey, including Antalya to Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt.

Rossiya B747-400
Seen here at the time of writing is EI-XLD, used by Rossiya and previously by JAL Express and Transaero, connecting Antalya (an enormously popular destination for Russians) to Moscow. Image: RadarBox.com.

Why the decline of the passenger 747?

The decline of the 747 and other four-engine aircraft, including the A340 and A380, was inevitable, even before extra motivation came from coronavirus. Widebody twin-engine aircraft have many benefits beyond fewer engines, although this is important and not just in terms of fuel consumption. A good amount of an aircraft’s acquisition cost comes from powerplants.

Twin aircraft are normally lighter than quads for around the same payload, with the lower weight meaning lower navigation charges, landing charges, fuel burn, and carbon charges. This brings important operating cost savings, important during recessions, other crises, and times of high fuel prices. Twins normally have performance advantages too.

BA B747-400
British Airways was the world’s leading 747 operator in 2019. Coming a close second was Lufthansa, with the B747-400 and -8 used. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

Older aircraft remain important

As always, it’s important to consider an aircraft’s ownership costs, with these possibly overriding potential benefits of newer aircraft. For this reason, airlines such as Allegiant and Volotea use older narrowbodies, counterbalancing higher fuel burn and maintenance with low aircraft use and low ownership costs. It also explains the popularity of reconditioning older aircraft, as done by many airlines.

What is your best memory of the B747? Let us know by commenting.