MIAMI — All Nippon Airways retired its last Boeing 747 aircraft on Monday. The original jumbo jet had been a workhorse for the carrier, and for the nation it served, since the 1970s.
The final flight departed from Naha, Japan, on the island of Okinawa, at 1:22PM, setting a course for Tokyo’s Haneda airport two hours away.
In Tokyo, thousands of spotters, enthusiasts, and well-wishers reportedly awaited the jet from atop the airport’s famed observation deck. Sure enough, the jumbo jet appeared on the horizon around 3pm local time, greasing the runway for the last time at 3:13. The jet paraded around the airport before offloading the last batch of the nearly 500 aboard. It is expected to go to the scrapyard.
The 747 had been a mainstay in the ANA fleet for over three decades. It accepted its first, a 747 Short Range (SR), in late 1978. Starting in 1979, the airplane was used exclusively for high demand, high density domestic runs. Thanks to the airplane’s 500+ person capacity, which was tailored specifically to the Japanese domestic market, the airline went on to operate nearly twenty of this specialty version.
In the mid-1980s ANA sought to expand beyond its role as a domestic-only carrier and into the world of international travel. After accepting its first 747-200 in 1986, the airline began service to Los Angeles LAX and Washington DC Dulles. Thanks to the -200, multiple cities around the world opened up to ANA, and helped usher the carrier to the top-tier airline it is today. Between the -SR and -200, ANA operated a total of twenty-three 747 classics.
ANA quickly began upgrading the 200s for the newer, more efficient -400s in 1990. Much like its classic fleet, the -400s were split between international and domestic versions. It would go on to operate twenty-three.
The carrier enjoyed taking advantage of the iconic profile of the jet to highlight a number of unique special paint schemes over the years. The first such design was known as Marine Jumbo, featuring a giant whale on the airplane along with other sea features and critters.
The most well-known, however, were the carrier’s series of Pokemon themed paint jobs. The first two were released between 1998 and 1999, a mash-up of game characters and the carrier’s own livery. The originals were replaced in 2004 by two new jets, one yellow and one blue, that stayed in the skies over Japan until the airplanes were retired.
As the end of the first decade of the 2000s drew to a close, the plane fell victim to rising fuel and maintenance costs, along with the rise of newer, more economical jets since.
Indeed, the writing was on the wall for the venerable quad-jet years ago. While ANA may have retired the last jet today, they’ve been slowly disappearing from the fleet for some time. The jets were already removed from international service a while ago. The carrier’s main competitor, Japan Airlines (JAL), retired its own 747 fleet back in 2011. Other carriers from the region, and around the world, have been shedding the jet as fast, or faster, than they can be replaced.
Still, the passenger 747 enjoyed a particularly good run in Japan. Boeing specifically tailored both the 747SR and 747-400D (domestic) to ANA and JAL, both of which bought the jets in spades. Though ANA had its fair share, JAL was especially fond of the jumbo, eventually expanding its fleet to well over 100.
The airplane can still be seen in the skies over the nation as a cargo jet, however. Japanese cargo airline NCA continues to operate the jet.
The airplane’s high capacity, reliable performance, and unique market niche helped cement a long-standing relationship between the American manufacturer and Japanese airlines. Both carriers went on to buy every other Boeing wide-body produced since, establishing a functional monopoly until JAL’s defection to the Airbus A350 XWB last year.