When Did Each US Carrier Retire Its Boeing 747s?

It seems that 2020 has been the year for Boeing 747 retirements. We have seen the early exit of the aircraft from some renowned 747 fleets, including British Airways’. But what about those 747 fleets in the US? We take a look at some of the largest carriers in the United States and what happened to their jumbos.

united Airlines 747
When did each US carrier retire their 747s? Photo: Oleg V. Belyakov via Wikimedia Commons

Why did airlines want the 747?

It was back in 1965 that the idea of the Boeing 747 came about. From humble beginnings, Boeing engineer Joe Sutter created the first plans for one of the most prestigious jumbo jets and one of the world’s first twin-aisle aircraft.

Its success was framed on the benefit of its size. Provide more seats, and at full capacity, the aircraft could save significant costs on operating expenses per seat for airlines. It was a model that would help Pan Am to make flying more accessible to the masses and steal the limelight with a gargantuan aircraft.

After it was first designed in 1965, Pan American World Airways placed an order in October 1966 for the quad jet aircraft. Four years later and the very first Boeing 747 flight was underway. The service took place on January 22nd 1970, on a route between New York and London with Pan Am.

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Pan Am 747
Pan Am placed the firt 747 order in 1966. Photo: Getty Images

Interest remains despite issues

In terms of its operation, the Boeing 747-100 suffered minor difficulties, which were quickly remedied. The more pressing issue was in its operational viability. Though the aircraft was excellent at delivering cost savings at full capacity, when the plane was less than full, those costs crept up. It meant airlines paid more in fuel than they saved in passenger bookings.

Despite this, the aircraft was still highly popular. For one, it was an icon, aptly named the Queen of the Skies. If anything, airlines invested in the plane to stay relevant and keep up with the competition.

For another thing, the 747 was a master at long range. That was enough to keep the dream alive for a while.

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Airlines continued to post order for the aircraft. Photo: FotoNoir via Wikimedia Commons

United Airlines’ 747 fleet

Of the major American carriers, United Airlines had the most extensive commercial 747 fleet. It invested in the aircraft back in 1970 and went on to own 88 aircraft in four variants. The first of 23 Boeing 747-100s came to United in June 1970 and was registered as N4703U. It flew with the airline for 16 years until 1986 when it went to Pan American World Airways.

Within those 16 years, however, United Airlines had begun acquiring quite a stock of 747s. By that point, it had 17 747-100s and had acquired 11 747SP in February 1986.

Yet, by far, the most popular 747 variant in the fleet was the 747-400. With 1,000 nautical miles in extended range and a 10% reduction in operating costs, it was a winner with airlines the world throughout.

United 747
United Airlines had 88 747 aircraft. Photo: Bill Abbott via Wikimedia Commons

United Airlines owned 44 of these aircraft in total, with the first, N171UA arriving in 1989. The aircraft was retained right up until a few years ago in 2015, according to Planespotters.net.

What happened to United’s 747s?

After phasing in new aircraft into the fleet as it evolved, United 747s paled into the background. While they had previously proved popular, by the mid-2010s, it was apparent that they had had their heyday. United Airlines has once hoped to retire the aircraft in 2018; however, it decided to do so one year earlier.

Ex-CEO of United Airlines Oscar Munoz said at the time that the decision was down to maintenance. With the general phasing out of the aircraft, it wasn’t easy to source parts. What’s more, there was an even more attractive proposal on the table; the Boeing 787 Dreamliner range.

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Maintenance issues led to United phasing out the 747. Photo: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

On October 29th 2017, the last ever United Airlines international 747 flight took place from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco, US. A few weeks later, on November 7th 2017, the aircraft flew from San Francisco to Honolulu, Hawaii, before it retired.

Delta Air Lines’ 747 history

Delta Air Lines owned 31 Boeing 747s in total across three variants. Its very first dealing with the aircraft was in September 1970 when it invested in a 747-100 with the registration N9896. Though this particular aircraft lasted just four years in the fleet, Delta Air Lines went onto lease both 747-200 and 747-400 aircraft as well.

In total, it owned:

  • five 747-100s;
  • 10 747-200s; and
  • 16 747-400s.

Delta’s 747-200 aircraft all came at the same time in 2008 on arrival from Kalitta Air. In the same year, the airline also acquired its first 747-400. After that, in 2009, it was time for the -200 to leave the fleet.

Delta Air Lines 747
Delta Air Lines was the last major US airline to own to 747. Photo: Getty Images

Delta operates the 747 in the US for the longest

Delta Air Lines became the last major US airline to operate the 747. It carried on using its 747-400s right up until 2017. It only announced the retirement in the summer of 2014 when it said it would use the Airbus A350 and A330neo to replace the 747s.

On December 15th 2017, Delta’s final international flight took place between Detroit, US, and Seoul, South Korea. The aircraft registered N666US then completed an employee tour between 18th and 20th December before it worked on ad hoc charters until the end of the year.

American Airlines’ 747s

Another airline that operated the 747 was American Airlines.

American Airlines owned and grew tired of the 747 long before other major US carriers. It also owned a smaller fleet in both passenger and cargo capacities.

American Airlines 747
American Airlines had just 19 747 aircraft. Photo: Michael Bernhard via Wikimedia Commons

There were just 19 747s in American Airlines’ fleet spread across three variants. It owned 16 747-100, which were first delivered in 1970. In addition, it had one Boeing 747-200 and two 747SPs. The lack of economic viability in the aircraft became clear to American Airlines early on. With difficulty consistently filling seats, the plane let the model go.

The first retirements of the aircraft happened in July 1974 with the removal of the aircraft registered N9668. It took 20 years for the aircraft to leave the fleet entirely. In December 1994, the final 747 took its leave. It was a 747SP registered N602AA and was sent to Dubai Air Wing, a paramilitary airline in the UAE.

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