The end of an era is approaching fast. After 50 years of service, Qantas will retire its remaining Boeing 747’s within the next 18 months, according to CH Aviation. There are seven 747s left in the Qantas fleet and Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, confirmed the end was nigh at the recent IATA AGM in Seoul. They will be phased out completely by the end of 2020.
Previously, the airline has said it expected to keep operating the 747 until 2022 or 2023. Now Qantas is speeding up the retirement process as more 787’s are coming online and the existing fleet of A380s are being progressively refurbished.
The 747s are ageing, expensive to operate, and their cabin product cannot compete with the newer A330 and 787 offerings. But people have a soft spot for the Queen of the Skies and it will be a sad day when the last Qantas 747 flight operates.
Last year, Alan Joyce acknowledged the role the 747 had played in the Qantas fleet in a statement, saying,
“The jumbo has been the backbone of Qantas International for more than 40 years … each new version of the 747 allowed Qantas to fly further and improve what we offered passengers”.
As to what’s going to happen to the aircraft when retired, Qantas told Simple Flying,
“We aren’t giving any detail about the future of these aircraft.”
The shrinking 747 fleet
Qantas currently flies its remaining 747’s to Santiago, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Honolulu and San Francisco. Qantas last bought a 747 in 2003 and has operated 65 of the type since the first delivery in 1971. Now the fleet is shrinking fast, as discontinued Qantas 747s are scrapped or find a second life elsewhere.
A second life in aviation museums
Qantas is acutely aware of its history and legacy. VH-EBQ, a 747-200, sits parked at Longreach airport in Central Queensland at the Qantas Founders Museum. It’s a vaguely disconcerting sight for travellers on the 3000 km outback drive between Brisbane and Darwin – a 747 in a small town airport in the middle of nowhere.
In 2015, Qantas donated VH-OJA to an aviation museum in Wollongong. The trip to the museum itself was a masterpiece of flying, as Captain Greg Matthews had to land the jumbo on a 1,819 x 30 metre runway. VH-OJA made history in 1989. The first 747-400 Qantas had delivered flew from London to Sydney nonstop in just over 20 hours, albeit very lightly loaded.
You can watch it land on that tiny runway in the clip below:
And more recent retirements
VH-OJS was retired in February 2019 after a scheduled flight to San Francisco.
Just last week Qantas retired its then oldest 747, VH-OED. On June 4th, the 27 year old aircraft operated QF73 from Sydney to San Francisco before heading off to the scrapyard in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Brisbane farewelled its last regular Qantas 747 service in November 2018 when QF55/56 swapped over to 787 Dreamliners. However there will be a one off domestic 747 service to Brisbane in November 2019 as Qantas relocates an aircraft for its annual Antarctic run from Brisbane. The return flight to Brisbane, QF56, marked the last time a Qantas 747 was sighted at LAX.
By the end of 2019, after 50 years of service, there will be no more Qantas 747s flying to North America. Flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles will be exclusively operated by 787-9 Dreamliners and A380s. The seasonal flights to Vancouver will be operated by A330s.
Qantas post 747
It’s hard to imagine Qantas without its 747’s.
But Alan Joyce is upbeat about the future at Qantas. He sees the retirement of the 747 as the end of one era and the dawn of another. He is excited about the opportunities the new 787s present.
“The 787 has better economics and a longer range, and its already opened up new routes like Perth to London. With a larger fleet of Dreamliners, we’ll be looking at destinations in the Americas, Asia, South Africa and Europe,” said Mr Joyce.
Brisbane is the current Qantas 787 base and looks to be the immediate beneficiary of new routes, particularly to North America. If Alan Joyce gets his ultra long range Project Sunrise planes we might one day look back on the 747’s with the kind of nostalgic affection we have for the 707. Great for its time, but surpassed.