Why The US Airlines Retired Their Boeing 747s

In November 2017, United Airlines flew their last flight using a Boeing 747. Just a month later, the final commercial flight of a Delta Air Lines 747 arrived from Seoul as flight 158. It later embarked on a farewell tour, stopping in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles according to Quartz. With a few major airlines still operating the Boeing 747, why were US Airlines among the first to retire their “Queen of the Skies”?

Delta’s last commercial 747 flight was in December 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While major international carriers like British Airways, Lufthansa, and Korean Air are still operating their jumbo jets for passenger flights, you won’t find any US Airlines operating the “Queen of the Skies”. There are a few reasons why this is the case.

It’s all about age

When it comes to aircraft, the phrase “age ain’t nothing but a number” doesn’t really apply. The older an aircraft gets, the more costly it becomes to operate.

Firstly, as technology develops, newer aircraft of similar size and range achieve higher rates of fuel efficiency. According to Investopedia, fuel accounts for 10-12% of operating expenses.

United’s last flight was November 2017. Photo: Flickr user Bill Abbott

Secondly, the older an aircraft becomes, the more maintenance it requires. Not only is the actual labor more costly, but time an aircraft is on the ground undergoing maintenance is a time the aircraft is not earning money. This is a significant factor when it comes to the commercial aviation industry and the razor-thin profit margins that airlines have to fight for.

Finally for the issue of age, when the above two factors combine with an old, tired, and outdated interior, there are enough economical reasons to replace it with a newer aircraft. You’d eventually start losing passengers who prefer to have USB charging ports and touch screens that don’t require excessive force to respond (apologies to the passenger sleeping in the seat in front!).

According to the Denver Post, American Airlines hasn’t flown a 747 since the late 1990s. Photo: Flickr user Dean Morley

The triple seven

All US airlines have now moved to the more fuel-efficient, twin-engine, wide-body Boeing 777.  In fact, the 777 can fly just as far but its operating and maintenance costs are far less. Furthermore, the Boeing 777-200LR is capable of connecting virtually any two cities in the world.

According to The Denver Post, the 777-300ER (extended range) can carry roughly the same number of passengers as the 747-400 while burning 100,000lb less fuel. Therefore, if 100,000lb of fuel equates to 15,000 gallons and the current price (according to IndexMundi) is $1.87 per gallon, then we are looking at a fuel savings of roughly $28,000. Pair that with the amount of flying these long-haul jets do and the reduction in maintenance and that’s a pretty strong case for a newer aircraft.

What about the other airlines?

Looking at numbers at Airfleets.net, it appears that it’s a “first in, first out” scenario. The US Airlines were some of the first to receive their Boeing 747-400s and therefore were among the first to retire them and adopt the 777 as a replacement.

This seems to be the case for airlines like British Airways and Korean Airlines, which took their oldest 747s in the mid-90s rather than the early 90s. The one exception is KLM – which still seem to be operating their 747s that were made as far back as 1990 (a sign of good maintenance perhaps?). However, even KLM will retire its 747s by 2021.

And then, of course, there are the newer 747s; The 747-8. Lufthansa and Korean Air opted to continue the 747 legacy by purchasing these newer variants for their passenger services. According to Boeing, the 747-8 reduces carbon emissions by 16% versus the 747-400.

Lufthansa has a fleet of 19 747-8i aircraft. Photo: Flickr user xingxiyang

Conclusion

In the end, it’s all about operating economics and fuel efficiency. Lower operating costs lead to lower airfares or the ability to spend those savings on other important aspects of the product- all of this attracts more passengers.

It seems like aircraft with four engines just don’t have a place in this competitive space. Are you disappointed that the US carriers chose not to take the newer 747? Let us know by leaving a comment!

17 comments
  1. Uhhh… the 777-200LR can’t connect any 2 cities in the world…. LHR-AKL, PVG-SCL SYD-JFK, JNB-HNL, GRU-PEK etc.
    Don’t exaggerate

  2. I am not US resident, so I can’t say that I’m dissapointed but instead surprised by the fact that an outstanding aircraft like the 747-8 has not been chosen by any american carrier, but by other major non US carriers like Lufthansa and Korean Air.

    1. It’s part of the increasing trend away from Very large Aircraft (VLA)…similar fate to the A380. It’s also the reason why the 777X has low order numbers, and not a single order from a US carrier.
      If we exclude cargo planes and VIP planes, only 36 747-8s have been sold to passenger airlines.
      It certainly doesn’t help that the 747-8 has four engines.

  3. Sorry, but this article is crap as US airlines still operate tons of outdated and old DC-9 successors, 757s and 767s (as well as very early (and old) A320s and 777s). So neither economics nor maintenance/ operating costs can be the reason. So what’s the real reason? The ones mentioned about are twin jets, the ‘must have’ right now, so most people don’t notice how old Your fleet actually is? The 747 can’t hide that so it had to go?

  4. I like the original jumbo jet. It seems spacious. Af had 747s retrofitted with video screens before retiring them.

    Perhaps the A380 compares to the spacious quality of the 747.

    I don’t understand how it is sufficiently safe to have only two engines on long hauls.

    1. Modern turbofans are so reliable that, on average, they score better than 1 failure per 100,000 flight hours.
      So, imagine a hypothetical 10-hour flight and 2-hour turnaround, carried out by a given plane flying back-and-forth every day between the same city pairs. Such a plane will, on average, have a service lifetime of more than 13.5 years before it experiences a single engine failure.
      To get the probability of both engines failing simultaneously, you square the failure rate…meaning that our hypothetical plane will, on average, experience such a double-failure event only once every 180 years.
      I’m not aware of a single event in which both engines on a twinjet have failed — though there are, of course, events in which they have cut out due to fuel starvation…notably MH370, Helios 522 and the following fascinating (and famous) event:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Transat_Flight_236

  5. On long-haul flights (10,000-13,000 km), the following fuel is consumed in liters per seat per 100km, on average:
    3.34 747-400
    3.30 747-8
    3.20 A380
    3.00 777-300ER
    3.00 787-9
    2.80 A350-900
    2.77 787-8

    Note how poorly both models of 747 perform.
    Note also that, if we switch the 787s from 9 seats per row to 8 seats per row, then (neglecting the lower passenger weight), we get the following rough conversion:
    3.35 787-9
    3.10 787-8
    So, relatively speaking, a 2-4-2 Dreamliner is actually a gas guzzler.

  6. The backlog numbers are overwhelming <200 seats.
    "On May 31, 2019, Airbus backlog was 7,207 jets, of which 6,259 (87 percent) are A220 and A320ceo/neo family narrowbodies, not far below the company’s all-time backlog record high of 7,577 jets set in December 2018.
    By the end of May 2019, Boeing’s backlog (total unfilled orders after ASC 606 adjustments) was 5,764 aircraft (of which 4,611, or 80 percent, are 737 NG/MAX narrowbody jets). Boeing’s all-time backlog high of 5,964 aircraft was set in August 2018.
    The number of Airbus aircraft to be built and delivered represents 9.0 years of shipments at the 2018 production level. In comparison, Boeing’s backlog would “only” last 7.2 years. In 2018, Boeing boasted a book-to-bill ratio of 1.11, with Airbus at 0.93. In 2017, Boeing booked 912 net new orders for a book-to-bill ratio of 1.20. That same year, Airbus booked 1,109 net new orders for a book-to-bill ratio of 1.54."
    http://www.fi-aeroweb.com/Commercial-Jet-Orders-Deliveries.html

  7. 747’s being retired/converted is less irritating to me than MAX’s not flying and not being ordered and not being delivered. The evidence is overwhelming that two under-skilled and under-trained, non-US airline crews cracked up two MAX’s and this has grounded the entire fleet, caused order cancellations, and put Airbus in the driver-seat of the highest volume, highest profit segment of the industry. What the heck is going on here? How long does it take to put in a switch that turns off the automation, and train crews on how to flip it ?????

    1. Uncle Ron, you are just a little out of touch.
      Even Boeing has admitted (after some prompting) that there are problems with the plane, not to mention Boeing’s too-close relationship with the FAA, which will damage trust for many years yet.
      And even Boeing stopped trying to blame the pilots a long time ago.
      Read a newspaper or two – even the US papers have been excellent in their coverage – and when you have something both interesting AND accurate to say, do pop back.

  8. “razor-thin profit margins”
    Yeah. Right.
    Someone hasn’t done his homework.
    Or maybe he believes whatever the big three tell him 😉

  9. I believe a major reason for Delta and United to retire the 747 was due to the requirement for the Fuel Tank Inerting System for regularly scheduled passenger service for US airlines on the 747.

    This is why Atlas Air (A US airline) still flies the 747 for passenger flights.

    DL and UA could have kept them a number of years longer, but at the age they were it was not worth the investment for the Fuel Tank Inerting System.

    1. From the standpoint of comfort, the 747 were more spacious than the 777, at least in my experience but I would prefer the 777 over the A350, which I flew for the first time last fall and it was very tight in the ‘back of the bus’. All I remember sitting in the aisle is the mantra, “head, elbows, knees”, “head, elbows, knees”, and they mean it! When I worked in the Gulf and typically flew Saudia Airlines, when they switched to the 777, they went leather, which, for me is unkind for 12-13 hours and there was nasty bar that the back of your backside had to rest on. That was terrible. Not sure if all 777 at time were like that or happened in the interior outfitting but for long hauls it’s no fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommended Stories: