Imagine it’s the fall of 1970. You’re planning a vacation to Hawaii.
You ask your travel agent what type of plane you’ll fly on. In that era, this question would have most likely referred to “prop” or “jet.” But in 1970, if you were flying on United Airlines to Hawaii, you might have been told, “You’ll be flying on Boeing’s brand-new jet plane, the 747.”
Yes, the iconic 747 is that old. As befitting her age, the 747, known affectionately as the Queen of the Skies, will soon be retired by several of the domestic airlines she’s served for 47 years.
United’s final 747 flight will take place Nov. 7, 2017, on the route where it all started.
Boeing announced plans for the 747 in April 1966, and the aircraft made its first test flight in February 1969. One year later, on Jan. 21, 1970, the 747 made its first commercial flight—from New York to London for Pan American World Airways.
United made its first 747 commercial flight on July 23, 1970, from San Francisco to Honolulu. Up until then, United typically flew the DC-8 from the West Coast to Hawaii. This four-engine jet carried 180 to 220 passengers, or up to 259 in a high-density configuration. Passengers would have paid a whopping $1,466 round-trip for a coach ticket, or $2,000 for first class.
With the advent of the 747, airlines like United could carry almost 400 passengers on a flight. If you were lucky enough to be in first class, you could have gone to an upper-deck lounge, where an elegant buffet of Hawaiian foods, as well as free-flowing mai-tais, would await you.
Ah, those were the days. Flying was elegant. People would dress up. Multi-course meals were served, even in coach/economy.
Airline economics have changed over the years. The 747 used to be the only plane that could fly nonstop routes across the Pacific. Now there are more fuel-efficient planes like the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 that can cover those same routes at a lower cost.
There are still some airlines that employ the Queen of the Skies.
As of July this year, 489 variants of the 747 were in use by the world’s airlines. Airlines with transatlantic flights to EuEurope, like British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, still use the Queen on long-haul routes with large numbers of passengers. British Airways operates the most 747s worldwide, with 36 in service.
Two American-flagged carriers are about to retire their longtime workhorse. Delta hasn’t announced when its last flight will take place, but it’s likely to be late this year or early next year. United will fete its final 747 flight on Nov. 7, flying from San Francisco to Honolulu, the first route it flew over 47 years ago. United Flight No. 747 will depart SFO at 11 a.m.
United plans a true throwback experience for this final flight, with a 1970s-inspired menu, retro uniforms for flight attendants and entertainment themed to that first flight. The aircraft will even use the “Friend Ship” designation employed by the original flight.
All tickets are sold out for the flight, but you can follow along with the hashtag #UA747Farewell.
As other airlines begin to phase out their 747s, the largest commercial plane we’ll have will be the Airbus A380. Yes, you’ll still be able to fly in a plane with an upper deck. But it won’t be the same as a plane with an upper-deck lounge.
To the Hawaii-bound United 747, about to fly off into the sunset, I say, “Mahalo.”