United's 747 retirement plan marks end for iconic jet in US

United Airlines plans to fly its last Boeing Co. 747 jumbo jet late this year, retiring its largest airplanes a year ahead of schedule as the iconic aircraft glides into the sunset.

The decision marks the end of an era for U.S. airlines, which have relied on the humpbacked 747 to bring jet travel to a mass consumer market since the plane debuted in 1970. United flew its first jumbo between California and Hawaii that year.

It’s also a reminder of the tough task Boeing faces as it tries to keep its newest 747 model, the -8, aloft amid waning demand for four-engine aircraft. The Chicago-based planemaker has just 28 unfilled orders, after closing 17 sales of the freighter version of the jet last year. Boeing has said it would end production if more orders don’t materialize.

“It’s a bittersweet milestone -- this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel,” United President Scott Kirby said in a letter to employees Wednesday.

Jetliner Shift

The Chicago-based carrier is the largest U.S. operator of the passenger 747-400 variant, with 20 of the aircraft in its fleet. Delta Air Lines Inc. is also parking its jumbo jets this year. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., ANA Holdings Inc., Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Air France are among carriers that have retired their 747-400 jetliners this decade amid a shift from four-engine aircraft to twin-engine planes, which are more fuel efficient, cheaper to maintain and capable of hauling nearly as many people over vast distances.

United spokesman Luke Punzenberger wouldn’t say which wide-body aircraft would replace the 747-400s, which have served as the airline’s workhorses on trans-Pacific routes for two decades. The carrier has taken delivery of the first of 14 Boeing 777-300ERs it has ordered for long-range flying.

The airline also has ordered 35 Airbus A350-1000s, but is weighing converting those twin-aisle jets to the smaller -900 variant or the mid-sized A330, United Chief Financial Officer Andrew Levy said in a November interview.

The airline plans to move pilot and flight attendant crews assigned to the 747 transition to other aircraft, Kirby told employees. “Our forward-looking fleet plan will cover 747 replacements and anticipated growth opportunities,” he said. “And of course, we’ll honor the 747 with an unforgettable retirement celebration.”

© Julie Johnsson and Michael Sasso. United 747

United: Final Boeing 747 flight will come by end of 2017

United Airlines is accelerating the retirement of its Boeing 747 jumbo jets, saying its last flight on the  “Queen of the Skies” will now come this year. Previously, United said its 747s would be phased out by the end of 2018.

“As deeply connected as we all are to this iconic aircraft, the time has come to retire our 747 fleet from scheduled service,” United Airlines president Scott Kirby said in a Wednesday memo to workers. “It’s a bittersweet milestone — this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel.”

“Today, there are more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated inflight experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights,” Kirby added. “For these reasons, we’re saying farewell to the Queen of the Skies, which has been part of our fleet since we first flew the aircraft between California and Hawaii in 1970.”

United made no mention of it in its memo, but its plans to accelerate the retirement of its 747s comes the same day the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue an airworthiness directive calling for potentially expensive fixes to older models of the jets – including the type flown by United.

United’s last 747 flight will now come in the fourth quarter of this year, according to the memo.

“We’ll be working with all of you who fly or work on the 747s to ensure a smooth transition to other fleets,” Kirby said. “Our forward-looking fleet plan will cover 747 replacements and anticipated growth opportunities.”

He also promised workers that the company will give the 747 an appropriate send-off.

“(O)f course, we’ll honor the 747 with an unforgettable retirement celebration,” Kirby wrote in the memo, adding “we’ll keep you posted with more details on her final flight in the months ahead.”

United is shifting its 747 flying to newer widebody jets, including the Boeing 777-300ER models that the company has just begun taking delivery of.

The 747s in United's fleet – all 747-400 variants of the jet – seat 374 passengers. The new 777-300ERs will seat 366.

United also has a number of other new widebody planes coming into its fleet, including Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliner models that seat 219 and 252 passengers, respectively. Many of those planes are already flying for the carrier. And, in 2018, United will begin taking delivery of new Airbus A350 widebody jets.

United's acceleration of its 747 retirement also makes it seem likely that no U.S. airline will be flying the iconic jet by the year's end.

Delta Air Lines is the only other U.S. carrier that currently uses 747s for passenger service. Like United, Delta also has begun to phase out its models of the jet. The carrier is on record as saying it expects to retire its last 747 by the end of this year.

Delta will use several models to replace its 747s. They include new Airbus A330s that already are being delivered to the carrier as well as new Airbus A350s that Delta expects to begin receiving next year.

Delta’s 747s accommodate 376 passengers.

United Airlines Will Retire Its 747 Fleet Earlier Than Expected

United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL, +1.87%) said on Wednesday it had advanced the retirement of 747s from its service to the fourth quarter of this year from end-2018.

United will replace the Boeing 747 fleet, which it has been flying since 1970, with other fuel-efficient, cost-effective and widebody aircraft, Scott Kirby, president, United Airlines , wrote in a blog.

The No.3 U.S. airline by passenger traffic operated 22 747-400 owned and leased aircraft of its total 715 mainline fleet as of Dec. 31, 2015.

Boeing Co (BA, +0.21%) said in July it would consider ending production of 747s as it faced falling orders and pricing pressure.The aircraft maker delivered a total nine 747s in 2016, half the deliveries in 2015.

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