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”?

Why The US Airlines Retired Their Boeing 747s
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.

Why The US Airlines Retired Their Boeing 747s
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Finally for the issue of age, when the above two factors combine with an old, tired, and outdated interior, there are enough economical reasons to replace it with a newer aircraft.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!).

Why The US Airlines Retired Their Boeing 747s
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.

Why The US Airlines Retired Their Boeing 747s
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!

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