Why Did The US Airlines Stop Flying The Boeing 747?

The Boeing 747 is one of the most iconic planes in commercial aviation history. It has been a welcome presence in the sky for the last 50 years. However, despite its legacy, it has been fully retired by carriers across the United States.

United 747
United was one of the last US operators to operate the 747. Photo: United Airlines

End of an era

At the tail end of 2017, two major US airlines retired the jet within a month of each other. In November, United Airlines performed its last passenger services with a 747 before Delta Air Lines did the same in December.

The latter wasn’t a massive fan of the 747 in the first place. When it first got its hands on one in 1970, it was excited about its prospects. It even promoted the “world’s first flying penthouse apartment” on the top deck of the jumbo.

Despite the initial fanfare, the plane didn’t last so long as part of the Atlanta-based carrier’s fleet. The company felt that the jet was too large for its services. Subsequently, the last of its five original 747s flew in April 1977.

However, the type would eventually return to Delta’s fleet following the firm’s merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008. Nonetheless, the plane didn’t last so long during the second term as less than a decade later it was retired once more.

Delta 747
The 747 had two stints with Delta. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Hard to maintain

Former United CEO and current executive chairman Oscar Munoz shared precisely why his company decided to retire the jet. According to Business Insider, he explained that it had started to become a struggle to maintain. Ultimately, the age of the type has reduced its efficiency across the board.

“You’ve got other jumbo jets out there that are being built and that a couple of people are flying. For us, we had dwindled down our fleet of 747s. They were already on a path to becoming obsolete,” Munoz said, as reported by Business Insider.

“They have been a grand aircraft for us for a long time, but we have issues with maintenance — parts in particular. If I need a part today, I can’t get it. We stripped every airplane in the world of its parts to feed the need, and no one is making new parts for this particular aircraft because there are just not as many out there.”

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All about costs

Altogether, just like how other carriers across the globe are also rapidly retiring the aircraft, US outfits were considering more efficient options. The 747 is a four-engine plane like the Airbus A380. Like its widebody counterpart, it has become an increasingly costly operation to run compared with modern two-engine options on the market.

Models such as the 777, 787, A330, and A350 are more effective options when it comes to long-haul services. Moreover, the market has progressed to allow narrowbodies to perform well on medium to long-distances. Therefore, US airlines don’t have to rely on such powerhouses anymore for trips across the Americas or the Atlantic.

Last decade, there could have been a new lease of life for the original jumbo in the US with the arrival of the 747-8. However, no passenger carrier in the country took any units on as they opted for the alternatives that they felt were more efficient.

United 787-9 Dreamliner
Modern units such as the 787 are easier to maintain and are more effective. Photo: Getty Images

In practice, a 777-300ER can carry approximately the same number of passengers as the 747-400. However, it burns 100,000 lb less fuel. This significant difference undoubtedly saves thousands of dollars per flight for operators.

A different world

Ultimately, it’s not surprising that US carriers retired the jet for these economic reasons. It has also become one of the major aviation casualties of the current global health crisis. Therefore, the cost-saving exercise pattern is clear.

It is the end of the road for the 747 when it comes to passenger operations. The legend made its debut in the US half a century ago when another icon, Pan American introduced it.

Pan Am 747
The Pan Am 747 is one of the most recognizable passenger planes over the last century. Photo: Getty Images

However, all good things must come to an end as the most likely way to see one in the skies across the nation would be a cargo operation or on a presidential mission. Regardless, the jet has left a mark that won’t be forgotten for generations to come.

What are your thoughts about the 747 becoming a rare sight in the skies across the United States? Are you said to see the aircraft go? Let us know what you think in the comment section.