Which Airlines Operated The Boeing 747 For The Longest?

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The days of the Boeing 747 are numbered. The few remaining airlines that still operate the aircraft are mostly busy retiring them. This year alone, British Airways, KLM, and Qantas have all closed the last cabin door on the 747. These airlines have had a long association with the 747, stretching back decades and taking in scores of planes. But which passenger airline has operated the 747 for the longest?

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Lufthansa has operated the Boeing 747 continuously since 1970. Photo: Lufthansa

Strong 747 launch by Pan American, but abrupt end

The launch customer of the 747 was Pan American. It entered service with that airline on January 22, 1970. However, Pan American ceased flying in December 1991, a victim of various internal and external factors. That means Pan American flew the Boeing 747 for just under 22 years. The airline might win the prize for being the first operator, but it does not win the prize for the longest operator.

Hot on Pan American’s heels was Lufthansa. On April 26, 1970, Lufthansa operated a Boeing 747-100 between New York and Frankfurt, and 50 years later is still flying the Queen of the Skies. Lufthansa was the second airline in the world to start flying the 747. The German airline wins the longest operator prize because it has been flying various models of the 747 ever since. Lufthansa has operated 56 jumbo jets over the years and still has 26 on ists books. With British Airways recently retiring their 747 ists, Lufthansa now has the biggest 747 fleet among any passenger airline anywhere.

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A Pan American 747-200 in May 1991. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

British Airways comes close, but no top prize

There are a few airlines out there that deserve an honorable mention for sticking with the 747 over the long-haul. BOAC, the predecessor to British Airways, received its first 747 in the same month as Lufthansa. But owing to industrial issues, the 747 did not fly under BOAC colors until April 1971. BOAC was merged with BEA to form British Airways in 1974.

When British Airways pulled the pin on its 747 fleet last month, it had a slightly bigger fleet than Lufthansa. But whereas Lufthansa can brag that it has been flying the 747 for 50 plus years and are still going, British Airways stopped flying the 747 nine months short of the 50-year mark.

Also loitering in the top tier of longest 747 operators is KLM. Its first 747 flew between Amsterdam and New York in February 1971 – after Lufthansa but before BOAC/British Airways. KLM went onto operate the 747 continuously until earlier this year. On March 29, the last KLM 747 pushed back from Mexico City for the flight across to Amsterdam. KLM had been flying the 747 for just over 49 years.

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longest-747-operator
British Airways’ predecessor BOAC, and its 747s. Photo: British Airways

Honorable mentions to Qantas and Japan Airlines

Qantas is another airline that ended its association with the 747 last month. At one time, it was a fair-sized operator of the 747, but Qantas had scaled back its 747 fleet considerably in recent years. Qantas first flew the 747 in September 1971, operating from Sydney to Singapore (via Melbourne). Last year, the airline announced it would be retiring the last of its 747s late in 2020. That date was brought forward as 2020 unfolded. That means Qantas operated the 747 for just under 49 years.

Another airline with a rich association with the 747 was Japan Airlines. It flew the aircraft between 1970 and 2011, or 41 years. Impressive but far short of Lufthansa. What set Japan Airlines apart was the sheer number and variety of 747s it operated. All up, Japan Airlines operated 144 jumbo jets over the years, including from planes from the 100, 200, 300, and 400 series.

So what’s the verdict? Lufthansa gets the gong for operating the 747 for the longest time. The minor prize getters are British Airways, KLM, and Qantas, respectively.

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But, would it be stirring controversy to suggest British Airways gets disqualified because of its name change? Technically, the airline didn’t come into being until 1974. Should the clock start clicking from then? What do you think?

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