Opinion: BA’s 747 retirement hits harder than most

A British Airways Boeing 747-400 featuring the Landor retro livery. Photo: © Steve Lynes

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, British Airways retiring its fleet of older, less efficient Boeing 747’s comes as no real surprise. In fact, to anybody with the slightest grasp of reality it makes perfect sense. But for many others like myself, it still somehow came as a shock and it doesn’t quite feel real. I’m left in a state of mourning for some bits of metal that we will soon be drinking fizzy beverages out of in the near future.

There’s no two ways about it; the Boeing 747 is special. Even to those with no interest in aviation, it is instantly recognisable. It coined the term ‘jumbo jet’, and is considered by many as the ‘Queen of the Skies’. Designed in the mid-to-late 1960s as an answer to Pan Am chief Juan Trippe’s request for an airliner that was at least twice as big as anything else currently available. It’s iconic design featuring a distinctive hump at the nose which housed the cockpit meant that it looked like nothing before… or since.

It was an instant hit, launching with just shy of 200 orders by the time the first commercial flight took place in January 1970 (a service from New York’s JFK to London Heathrow Airport). By 1980, that number exceeded 500. It’s momentum didn’t stop until 2018, at which point 1,572 had been ordered. Back when the first prototype, RA001, rolled out on 30th September 1968 wearing the white and red Boeing House Livery, British Airways’ precursor BOAC’s logo was adorned on the side of the nose, along with 26 other airlines whom had all placed orders for the type.

The British flag carrier had placed its faith in the aircraft before it had even flown. It received its first of 15 Boeing 747-136s in April 1970, four years prior to its merger with British European Airways to form British Airways. The Boeing 747 has been in service with the British national airline ever since that date. In 1989, BA took delivery of its first updated 747-400 model, of which it had placed an order for 60. That would make it the largest operator of the Boeing 747-400 in the world.

The fleet lived at London Heathrow, my local airport. Having grown up under the flight path of runways 09L and 09R, spending my whole life living in London, the British Airways Boeing 747 has been one of the very few constants in aviation. That’s an even bigger deal when you’re an aviation enthusiast.

Whether you’re flying with BA or not, you’ll likely find a British Airways 747 parked at the gate at your destination airport. The world over, a British Airways 747 was one of the most common of airport sights. Again, think what you will of the airline or its livery, but wherever you see that red white and blue adorned tail at an airport, standing 6 stories high, to a Brit like me it evokes feelings of home. You’re going home. Given that BA’s fleet of 747-400s was as gargantuan as it was, the two go hand in hand – the British Airways 747s have become visual metaphor for that feeling of home; its a comforting feeling, even when the journey may be bittersweet.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, with half the fleet retired it still felt just as common. I have not known the world without a British Airways 747, and there aren’t many days that have gone by where I’ve not seen one, or at least (thanks to our famous British weather) heard one overhead. When you’re an aviation enthusiast, you pay attention to these things; they become part of your life. Knowing that the fleet was to be retired in 2024 didn’t really mean much. The BA 744 was something that we’re always going to see? It had some kind of immortal status.

As other airlines have retired their 747 fleets, they’ve done so with plenty of warning. Many have put on celebrations, flypasts, special flights. They’ve commemorated the aircraft’s service in a way that is only fitting for aviation royalty. That’s not the case with British Airways’ announcement, as the airline told International Flight Network it will probably not perform any farewell flights. As much as we’ve all been somewhat expecting it, the news has still come like a sucker punch to the gut.

The reality of the retirement comes at a time whilst all of our lives are different – a somewhat surreal moment in time perhaps. This only makes the pill harder to swallow. Surely this will all eventually blow over, and we’ll look up to the skies and see the comforting sight of a British Airways Boeing 747 flying overhead, right?