LONDON – The Boeing 747-400 has long been the backbone of British Airways’ (BA) long-haul operation since the introduction of the type in 1989.

However, as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, BA has suspended the training on said aircraft, sparking rumors of a possible retirement from the fleet.

A long-standing career

The Boeing 747 has been a key part of BA’s global operations since the inception of the airline as we know it today. Before the formation of BA in 1976, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) received its first Jumbo jet in April 1970.

British Airways then continued to operate the Boeing 747-100,-200, and -400 throughout the following years. The first Boeing 747-400 (G-BNLA · MSN 23908 · LN 727) was delivered to the airline on 27 July 1989.

Lord King, Chairman of BA at the time, described the Boeing 747-400 as a “fabulous airplane” and that “it’s as good as you can get.”

Michael Colvin, Chairman of the Conservative Aviation Committee at the time, further added, “if you’re expecting people to fly the flag, then you’ve got to buy the best.”

British Airways Negus 747 Aircraft Taken: 21st March 2019 Picture by: Stuart Bailey

A 50-year run for the whale

During the next decade, British Airways extended its original order for 19 747-400s until reaching 57 of the type. G-BYGG (MSN 28859 · LN 1212) was the last jumbo ever be delivered to BA in April 1999.

Despite the strong history of the Boeing 747 and BA, the airline chose not to order any Boeing 747-8 and opted for the Airbus A350-1000, as well as for the Boeing 777X.

The Boeing 747-400 fleet played a large part in BA’s centenary celebrations in 2019 as it saw three of the type repainted into special retro liveries to represent various times in the airline’s past.

The liveries consisted of one with the classic BOAC retro colours, a second one wearing the so-called Negus livery, and the iconic Landor paint job.

Retirement Plans

British Airways began to phase out its jumbos in December 2011, with the retirement of two of the oldest frames. G-BNLA, the first one ever delivered, remained in the fleet until February 2018, when it was retired.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, BA planned to gradually phase out the 747-400 fleet in four years.

The airline originally started 2020 with 32 -400s and was due to end the year with 25. The fleet would be gradually phased out from that point onwards, leaving 12 in 2022 and the final aircraft to be retired in early 2024.

Despite these plans, the retirement of BA’s aging fleet of Boeing 747 may be more imminent than originally planned. On June 19, the airline suspended all training on the Jumbo fleet.

LONDON, UK: British Airways 747 in Landor livery arrives at London Heathrow on 09 March 2019. (Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)

A temporary suspension of training

A British Airways spokesperson confirmed Airways that “the suspension of training may be subject to change in the future,” further adding that the suspension “is related to the current situation.”

British Airways was also quick to reiterate that this was “a temporary suspension of the training,” without confirming any early retirement for the most famous jet airliner ever to ply the sky.

The news on the suspension of training has led to a whirlwind of speculation that the Boeing 747-400 would not be returning to commercial service with BA after the pandemic.

The rumors have been further sparked as Iberia (IB), owned by International Airlines Group (IAG) —Parent company of BA—has withdrawn from use its Airbus A340-600 in a measure that seems to reduce operational costs to a minimum during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A British Airways Boeing 747-87UF Cargo aircraft.

Dealing with COVID-19

Following the announcement by the BA of cutting 12,000 out of its 48,000 staff—including 25% of its Pilots—and the uncertainty of the continuation of the airline’s London-Gatwick (LGW) base, public opinion has been quick to strike BA down as using the COVID-19 pandemic as a bargaining chip with its trade unions.

Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the Transport Select Committee claimed that BA was “using the pandemic as a justification to slash jobs and employment term,” and that the airline has “tried this before but its workforce resisted.”

(Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for British Airways)

Fighting for survival

Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG, responded to the accusations, stating that BA “was in “full compliance with the law” with regard to redundancies because it was “only proposing changes that it wishes to consult over” with the corresponding trade unions.

“British Airways is mired in the deepest crisis the company has ever faced and is acting in a perfectly lawful manner,” Walsh said in a letter to Merriman, adding that the company was “fighting for its survival.”

As the British flag carrier fights for its survival, the future of the Boeing 747-400 in its fleet seems to be bleak, as the curtain may fall earlier than expected.