There’s no denying the large hit the airline industry has suffered from this pandemic. Today Virgin Atlantic has filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy in New York and many other airlines are feeling the same pinch going along. One of the emerging tragedies of this ailing industry is the retirement of the Boeing 747 (dubbed “the Queen of the Skies”) from many fleets. Boeing has even stated that they will end production of the aircraft starting in 2022, which is perhaps the earliest point at which we can see air travel at least at some level of its former 2019 self.
With British Airways retiring its 747 fleet (which is the world’s largest), it’s going to become increasingly difficult for the everyday consumer to be able to travel on this lovely piece of history. Soon the President of the United States and several world leaders will truly be privileged people, to be the only ones flying this aircraft. It’s a sad but inevitable fate for the legendary aircraft, which made its maiden flight in February of 1969.
I figured now was an appropriate time as any to reminisce about flying this double decked airplane and talk about my favorite flights on this aircraft.
Air India Economy 747 (New York-London-Delhi) in 2000
My earliest recollection of flying the Boeing 747 was back in 2000 when my family flew to India on Air India from New York JFK. Flying the Maharaja back then was a memorable experience at the time. Food was good and seats were actually in good condition. At the time, I had never flown a premium cabin on any airline, so when my dad told me that first class was upstairs, I would imagine the most ridiculous cabin in the sky. Quite frankly the cabins I would dream of were fit for the Sultan of Brunei rather than a first class passenger on Air India, but I had no idea at the time. Anyway something about riding in such a big and quiet aircraft (at the time) left a mark on me. And since then I have always preferred to fly this aircraft when flying internationally.
United of course retired its 747s back in November of 2017 so it’s been qutie some time. My last flight on the aircraft a flight from Tokyo – San Francisco that very same year. I always had mixed feelings about the United Global First product in general with the seats being rather exposed to the aisles and the lack of distinction in the soft product from business other than the soup at the time. However, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy flying out front on the 747 in this cabin while it lasted. Being in the front of the aircraft, below the cockpit, always amused me during take off and landing because of how early or late the nose would be in the air. For some reason I also found this part of the plane always to be the quietest in terms of aircraft noise, not just passenger noise. The experience is also a bit surreal at times because you don’t see the cockpit door in front of you like you do on the upper deck. So I can pretty much imagine how it feels to fly on a plane without a pilot 🙂
Lufthansa First Class 747 Lower Deck (Frankfurt-Delhi) in 2013
Back in the day, Lufthansa would make tons of first class space available for partner mileage redemption. And at the time the prices for first class would also be reasonable (80,000 United miles one way for US to India in First Class). So this was by far one my favorite ways to get to the Indian subcontinent. The elegant and quiet nature of the cabin along with the service always kept me coming back for as long as that deal lasted. It was certainly like flying private on an automated aircraft.
I should note that I’ve only flown the Lufthansa 747-8i cabin and not the 747-400 variant ,which featured a different kind of first class seat with a chair and a bed. I sort of wish I had tried out that other product while it lasted, though I’ve heard mixed thoughts about it. Lufthansa hasn’t commented yet on what it will be doing with its 747 fleet, but we can definitely hope that it stays in the skies for some time to come with LH.
Ever since I first saw the KLM 747 land on Sint Maarten over Maho Beach on TV, I’ve always wanted to photograph the plane and of course get a chance to fly on the upper deck of one. I finally got that chance to photograph the plane in 2013 and I finally flew the upper deck in 2018 on a cheap business class fare out of Oslo to Chicago. I have to say while the memory of the 747 landing over Maho will always stick in my mind, I’m not sure the KLM flight will necessarily. While there was nothing wrong with it, the density of seats and seating arrangement never really struck a cord with me like the other ones did. I still love flying KLM for their ceramic dutch houses, crockery, and Amsterdam airport, but being on the inside of a 747 wasn’t quite as special as some of the others. With the aircraft being retired however, I guess it’s certainly become one of my most treasured memories.
One of my last flights before this pandemic struck down air travel was on a BA 747 from Dallas to London and back. 2020 has truly justified all the travel decisions I’ve made before this point in time. Oh boy am I glad that I got the chance to fly Club World on the upper deck of the aircraft, especially now because of the abrupt termination of 747 flights by BA.
Flying BA Club World on the upper deck is a special experience, which I can only equate to flying on a private plane (which I have never done). There are only 18 Club World seats in a 2-2 configuration on the upper deck of a BA 747 and that’s quite a respite from the crowded and dense nature of BA’s Club World product on most aircraft which is in a 2-4-2 configuration. The sides of the aircraft also offered huge bin spaces to keep your personal belongings, which was extremely convenient for storing laptops, cameras, and other accessories. I’ve always lucked out with great cabin crews on BA, but the crews on the upper deck of the 747 have always been exceptional. The level of attention I’ve received in that cabin has always been superior to even the first class experience on the same aircraft. I’m assuming it has a lot to do with serving fewer passengers.
My favorite 747 flying experience was back in 2014 during my Around the World First Class trip on 120,000 US Airways Dividend Miles. My cousin and I flew Cathay First from Tokyo to Hong Kong on the 747 and it has to be one of my most memorable flights of them all. It was my first time flying an Asian carrier in first class and boy did it make a world of a difference at the time. Putting the great service aside, Cathay used to have the fewest seats at the nose of the aircraft (@ just 9) and the cabin was very much tastefully furnished and decorated. I still consider these seats to be one of the most comfortable first class seats I’ve ever sat in, despite them not being the most private. The 747 has since been retired from Cathay’s fleet in 2016.
Cathay has regrettably faced some undue hardships and financial troubles with the political turmoil in Hong Kong and the pandemic. It used to be my second favorite airline (after Singapore) in the world back in 2015 when I last flew it. I hope to fly them once again if they survive this pandemic. There’s no doubt that they operate some of the best lounges in the world at Hong Kong Airport.
Flying the 747 in a premium cabin is perhaps the only way for consumers to redeem airline miles for private aviation type experiences. With BA retiring its fleet of 747s and with the way the pandemic is going, I don’t see these planes making a come back to our skies. It is yet another unfortunate victim of this ravaging pandemic. Let’s hope Lufthansa keeps flying these incredible aviation masterpieces for as long as possible.