Why Are Airlines Retiring The Boeing 747?

Daniel Fowkes
19 Apr 2024
· Aircraft 
· Airlines 
· Analysis 
Airlines worldwide are retiring their Boeing 747s and opting for the 787, 777 and A350 as a replacement, but what led to this decision?

The Boeing 747 is an iconic quad-engined aircraft. However, it has recently been removed from airlines’ operations. Why is this, and what has caused the retirement of the Boeing 747?

Since its conception, the 747 has successfully redefined long-haul travel and brought a lasting legacy that’ll live on for generations. While an aircraft can be forever remembered, it doesn’t inherently mean it’ll be around forever, and for the 747, several key reasons have meant its time in the sun has dissipated.

There are many arguments about when the Boeing 747’s period in the spotlight ended. Several onlookers believe it was even before the birth of the 747-8, with this last iteration being the last-ditch attempt to save the program and fend off the A380 competition.

Others argue that the emergence of the global pandemic was the final nail in the coffin for the beloved aircraft. However, regardless of the camp one is in, the 747s flying rate, at least for passenger flights, has dwindled dramatically.

A Shift To Twin-Engine Aircraft

The shift to twin-engine aircraft was spurred on as early as the introduction of the Boeing 767, which in the late 1900s redefined what it meant to fly with two engines. The advancement and adoption of ETOPS meant that twin-engined planes had capabilities that were not seen before.

Following the 767’s success, airlines adopted new technology seen on aircraft such as the 777 and A330, giving them another platform for their medium—to long-haul missions. However, the development of the A350 and 787 would cement the shift.

The rise of aircraft types such as the Boeing 787 cemented the fate of the 747 long before it would be retired by airlines around the world.

These modern twin-engine planes are explicitly engineered with advanced technologies that significantly enhance fuel efficiency. A logical yet basic reason behind justifying an investment.

As technology advances, this will be implemented in aircraft, and the differences will be noticeable. Improvements such as these translate to lower operating costs. Lower costs are crucial for airlines seeking to maintain profitability, especially in an era with so much fluctuation, concerns, rising fuel prices and competition from every angle.

Furthermore, twin-engine aircraft have begun to offer airlines much more than what was previously on offer. While these aircraft types can’t replicate the same capacity levels, they can offer a more efficient means of travel.

Whether this is through an aircraft like the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 737 MAX. The aforementioned examples highlight advancements over time and fresh capabilities.

The Boeing 747 During The Global Pandemic

The global pandemic also contributed to the accelerated retirement of iconic aircraft like the Boeing 747 for several major airlines, including Qantas, KLM, and British Airways.

The global pandemic forced airlines such as KLM to retire their Boeing 747s with immediate effect to streamline and limit costs in a turbulent period – Photo: Melvin Loi

As travel demand plummeted, there was no longer a need for high-capacity aircraft like the 747. The crisis provided an opportune moment for airlines to phase out these less efficient planes earlier than planned.

By retiring the 747, airlines could streamline their fleets, reduce operating costs, and align with sustainability goals faster than initially imagined and do so when there was zero demand. In some cases, this came back to bite the respective airline. However, in others it didn’t.

The 747 Doesn’t Make Sense Anymore

While a queen in its own right, continuing to operate the Boeing 747 presents several disadvantages compared to modern aircraft.

Firstly, the 747’s four-engine nature makes it less fuel-efficient than its twin-engine counterparts. Higher fuel consumption translates to increased operating costs when airlines have pushed hard to drop operating costs to maximise profits.

Therefore, more often than not, an aircraft like the 747 isn’t optimal for most carriers. This stretches further towards aircraft such as the Airbus A340 or Airbus A380, which feel a similar problem emerging.

Maintenance costs also pose considerable challenges for ageing aircraft like the 747. The 747 has been a mainstay for decades. However, the final iteration in the 747-8, while being relatively new, wasn’t as successful.

What does this mean? This means that the average age of active 747s is high. With this relatively high age comes some opportunities for niche customers, but it also proves a disadvantage for others. Just like an old car can be dearly loved but see subsequent maintenance costs increase.

What’s Next For The Boeing 747?

While the Boeing 747’s presence in passenger operations has dwindled significantly over recent years, its future in freighter operations is more present. Throughout history, freighter variants have proved an extension of the program necessary to secure its long-term flying future.

Unlike 747 passenger jets, the fantastic capabilities these freighters offer mean that the 747F is here to stay.

Ultimately, there are many reasons why an airline will look to retire the 747. All these make logical sense, but this doesn’t deter from the significance the aircraft has had throughout the decades.

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  1. I miss the comfort of flying in the 747, leg room being able to move around in the two aisle cabinet. You didn’t have to climb in and out of your seat. So sad to know the 747 is being phased out passenger service.

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