The Boeing 747 has been the most iconic airliner the world has ever known. It successfully shrank the world, enabling more people to fly further than ever before. While the in-service fleet is dwindling today, over the years, more than 1,500 have been delivered to airlines. Let’s take a look at which carriers were the biggest fans of the Queen of the Skies.
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Biggest operator of all time
Plenty of airlines are synonymous with the Boeing 747, but the world’s biggest operator of all time might well surprise you. The airline that has operated the most 747s ever is not Singapore or Pan Am, or even British Airways… it’s Japan Airlines.
Since the 1970s, JAL has operated a total of 108 Boeing 747. It was the launch customer of the Boeing 747-100 and also of the specially designed Boeing 747SR-100. This short-range version of the early 747 reduced fuel capacity but added payload. Initial designs allowed up to 498 passengers onboard, with later improvements expanding this to 550. 12 flew for JAL, alongside eight standard -100s.
JAL also took delivery of 24 Boeing 747-200, along with seven 747-200F for JAL Cargo. Later, it took nine 747-300 in standard configuration, but in line with demand from the local market, it also took four 747-300SR. Again, this was a short-range, high capacity model with seating for up to 584 passengers.
The variant with the biggest presence in JAL’s fleet was, however, the 747-400. In total, the airline took 44 of the -400s, 34 of which were the standard type, two were freighters and eight the ‘domestic’ version, the 747-400D. The D again was tailored to high volume, short routes, and provided JAL with capacity for as many as 624 people.
Biggest operator of the -400
The 747-400 was the real gamechanger and the best-selling product in Boeing’s 747 line up. In total, 442 747-400s were delivered to airlines. When you include the special variants such as the D, the ER, the ERF, the freighter and the combi -400M, that number rises to 694 of the type. That gives the 747-400 family almost a 40% share of the total 747 production.
The biggest operator of the standard passenger variant was British Airways, with a fleet of 57. The airline’s 50-year relationship with the Queen of the Skies came to a crashing end in 2020, when the downturn in international traffic forced its hand and meant the fleet took an early retirement.
Other major operators included United Airlines with its fleet of 44, and Singapore Airlines with 42 in passenger service and a further 17 freighter variants. SIA flew its last 747-400 in 2012, while United bid farewell to its last Queen in 2017.
Largest operator today
As of December 2020, just 435 of the 1,572 Boeing 747s ever built remain in operation worldwide. A large number of those are cargo planes, so it should come as no surprise that the world’s largest operator today is a cargo airline.
Atlas Air takes the crown for the biggest operator of the 747 right now. 40 Queens fly for the New York-based airline, a handful of which are actually passenger aircraft. Six 747-400 fly in a VIP configuration as passenger planes, but the rest are all freighters. These are split between 30 747-400F and four 747-8F. The airline recently bought the last four 747s ever to be built by Boeing.
UPS and Cargolux take second and third place for current operators, with 33 and 30 aircraft respectively. The largest operator of the passenger variant is Lufthansa, which is recorded as having 29 in service. 10 are the 747-400, for which the future remains uncertain. But the other 19 are the more modern, fuel-efficient 747-8, which will likely stay in service for some years yet.