Jumbos In Decline: Virgin Atlantic Retires Another Boeing 747

Following its plans to retire its Boeing 747 fleet by 2021, Virgin Atlantic yesterday said goodbye to another of its aircraft. We take a look at the impact of the retirement and Virgin’s upcoming fleet plans.

Virgin has retired Tinker Belle – one of the remaining 747 aircraft. Photo: Eddie Maloney via Flickr

Farewell for a queen

Yesterday (23rd November 2019), Virgin Atlantic bid farewell to Tinker Belle, one of its remaining 747-400 aircraft. The airline posted on Twitter to praise the aircraft’s “incredible service” of 23.5 years. Leaving the fleet, the aircraft is now stored at St Athan RAF Station in Wales, according to Planespotters. But the airline will eventually scrap the aircraft.

This retirement leaves Virgin Atlantic with just seven 747 aircraft. All of these are expected to retire within the next two years.

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The replacements

Of course, Virgin would not be happy retiring its once-flagship aircraft if the alternative was not much better. Earlier this year, Virgin received the first of its Airbus A350-1000 aircraft. The delivery is one of 12 airplanes that the airline will receive in the coming years.

It’s these 12 aircraft that Virgin has designated as replacements for the 747-400. The reason for this is that it helps Virgin streamline its aircraft with its mission.

A350-1000 will replace 747-400. Photo: Virgin Atlantic

In a press release in August prior to the delivery, the airline said:

“In 2019, we expect the first of our order of twelve Airbus A350-1000s which will eventually replace our Boeing 747-400s and Airbus A340-600s.”

Sir Richard Branson has taken an avid interest in the environment when it comes to his airline. He wants to rival British Airways for the carbon neutral top spot by 2050. And the A350-1000 will help him to get there.

Compared with the 747-400, the A350-1000 is 30% more fuel-efficient. This puts it firmly in line with Branson’s goals. He intends for all his aircraft to operate 25-30% more efficiently than at the present moment.

Good for the environment, good for growth

However, it’s clear that the retirement of the 747 fleet does not only bring benefits for Virgin’s carbon footprint. The airline is now able to drive expansion.

The design of the A350-1000 is allowing Virgin Atlantic to grow. Photo: Virgin Atlantic

And that’s in part thanks to the integrity of the A350-1000. The aircraft burns less fuel which means that it’s cheaper to fly – a good economical move for Virgin. And, what’s more, by investing in A350-1000, Virgin has upped its mileage. These aircraft are able to cover a larger range and do it whilst consuming less fuel. Accordingly, Virgin has been able to create new routes.

After its inaugural flight from London to New York, the airline has bigger plans still for its A350 fleet. 2020 will see four new routes open operating the A350-1000. Virgin will be flying services to and from:

  • Johannesburg, South Africa, daily from March 2020.
  • Los Angeles, California, daily from April 2020.
  • San Francisco, California, daily from May 2020.
  • Lagos, Nigeria, daily from August 2020.

An emotional change

And yet, whilst everything with the new aircraft seems topically sensible and smart, it’s with a heavy heart that we bid adieu to Virgin’s 747. It was an iconic aircraft that we’re seeing less and less of in our skies. Virgin acquired their first jumbo jet, a 747-200, back in June 1984 and it operated services between London Gatwick and Newark.

Virgin Atlantic’s first-ever 747. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

In its heyday, the aircraft also allowed the airline to do things which the new aircraft are better at now; opening new routes and establishing a solid airline presence.

Are you sad to see Virgin’s 747 retire? Let us know in the comments.

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Jethro

oh well never mind the Airbus A350-1000 is one hell of a lot better

Niklas Andersson

Agreed

Paul Johnson

Dog awful aircraft, 3-3-3 is a joke. Battery hens unless you can afford the astronomical amounts for upper classes.

Paul Johnson

Fuel efficient maybe and nicer to the environment but what about the customer? Both A350 and 787 are way too small for long haul in my opinion. Any efficiency generated from fuel savings will be swamped by the cost of new leases on these aircraft and customers switching off long haul flights. These aircraft, unless not travelling economy are not suitable in my humble opinion.

Henning

Fuel savings is one thing, but the savings in maintenance is probably more important. Those 20 year old quad jets cost much more to maintain and keep them airworthy.
And probably the most important ting, nobody want to fly with an old noisy aircraft with an old outdated interior.

Will

So sad to see the 747’s in decline. It’s still such an iconic airplane, arguably more so than anything else and has done so much to stimulate the AV interests of many, many young children.

Tom

I do love the 747. As said in the article it is an iconic aircraft and much loved by many aviation fans across the globe. However, the four engines and the actual size of the plane mean more fuel burn whilst travelling shorter routes than the likes of the a350. Personally, I will be sad to see it go but I will welcome the new fuel efficient aircraft gladly.

TonytTDK

Ultimately, it’s all about ‘bums-on-seats’. If Virgin (or any other airline) can successfully market & price their seats to fill the plane, they’ll make money. If they can fill a B747, they’ll make more money than in a full B787, but if they can’t fill a 747, they’ll lose a bucketload of cash on every trip.! So it’s about how VAtl think they can best make money. They obviously believe their interior configuration will sell tickets at the price they want AND generate a positive image for their airline. If airlines are retiring their 10 year old & much more… Read more »

Paul Johnson

The 747’s are obviously paid for and owned or they would have long since been off loaded.

Jon

Replacing the 747 isn’t driving expansion at Virgin, it’s just helping to make individual routes more cost effective. The only way that Virgin can expand would be to pick up new slots at Heathrow (near impossible) and Gatwick (difficult for peak times) and / or push expansion at Manchester. As it is, the airline is seeing a contraction on a number of routes due to replacing the 747 with smaller aircraft; for example, Virgin still fly twice weekly from Gatwick to Havana but have replaced the 747 with a significantly smaller A330-200. They have also pulled out of Cancun entirely.

Andrew

All this talk about efficiency has ignored one big fact…. The A350-1000 doesn’t have the passenger capacity of the 747! At Manchester to Orlando we have 2 747-400 flights a day full to capacity at 490 passengers so 980 passengers that would require 3 A350-1000 to fly same amount of passengers not to mention loss of cargo capacity! Are Virgin going to fly 3 aircraft a day? No just 2 so MAN-MCO loses 200+ passenger spots a day! What does that mean to passengers? Higher fares! No reduction by the much vaunted 30% fuel saving of the Airbus just the… Read more »

Tom

That is correct however Virgin probably don’t fill some of those seats anyway which means the A350 is a perfect fit. Furthermore, the A350 is more fuel efficient than the 747-800 so it wouldn’t make sense buying the -800.

Bryce

Correct, Tom. Virgin Atlantic have an average load factor of 79%.

Lorraine McAulay

Loved the 747. Was a pleasure to travel on her. So sad to see them go 😣

d g

30% more efficient but I bet they wont drop those huge fuel surcharges

Andrew Pollock

Should have purchased the 747-8 More seats less cost per seat. flying will get costly again for the common man

Bryce

The 747-8 was a total flop…

Denis Coghlan

Something to think about! The B744 has never lost a soul in flight! The only serious accident being on the ground when the pilot tried to take off from a runway under construction and hit machinery. The B744 has an excellent departure reliability rate and rarely diverts due to mechanical problems. Consider how often the twin engine results in diversions and would you really be comfortable over the ocean 180 minutes from an alternate with one engine out? Even the A380 has to divert if an engine quits. Allowing the B747-8i to die may well return to haunt those airlines… Read more »

Bryce

The B744 has indeed had fatal accidents in flight. For example:
– Asiana 991 (2011) caught fire and crashed into the sea.
– National Airlines 102 (2013) stalled and crashed shortly after taking off.

“Every major accident with high or total loss of lives, has been a twin engined aircraft.”
Totally incorrect. There were several 747 accidents (-100 and -200 variants) involving engines/wings falling off in mid flight, resulting in hull loss and total loss of life. And you’re forgetting the multiple accidents with the three-engined DC10, and with the four-engined Comet and 707.

Denis Coghlan

I’m referring to passenger B744s only.

Both Asiana and National were B744Fs, cargo aircraft.

The B744 was virtually a new design with only a passing relationship to the 100, 200 and 300 Series.

The B744 has the safest record of any passenger aircraft!

Bryce

Whether it’s passenger or cargo, it’s the same airframe.
Both accidents resulted in hull losses, and both killed the entire crew on board.

Denis Coghlan

But no passengers killed or injured!

Denis Coghlan

No passenger was ever lost in flight!

Sphere

“Every major accident with high or total loss of life has been a twin engined aircraft”
Ever heard of Tenerife?

Richard

Let’s hope that the seats are more comfortable than the dreadful seating in their 787s! I actively try and avoid those and take A330 flights instead as they are so much more comfortable.

MYLF

How is the a350 better? Smaller aisles, and unlike the 747, the walls are curved at the window seat so less shoulder space. Also crucially, premium economy is shrinking down from 21 inches to just 18.5 inches width.