MIAMI — United Airlines has prompted the phase-out of its Boeing 747-400s, now set to leave the fleet in the last quarter of 2017, as announced today in the morning by Scott Kirby, president of the Chicago-based carrier.

“As deeply connected as we all are to this iconic aircraft, the time has come to retire our 747 fleet from scheduled service. Last March, we announced that this would occur by the end of 2018; now we plan to operate our last 747 flight in the fourth quarter of this year,” Kirby said in a statement.

United Airlines took delivery of its first 747 in June 1970 (William M. Allen • N4703U • MSN 19753 • LN 52), operating since then three variants of the Queen of the Skies, including the 747SP after taking over Pan Am’s assets and routes in 1986.

This is an edited insert of united Airlines' first 747, when the type was introduced in 1970. (Credits: Chris Sloan)
This is an edited insert of united Airlines’ first 747, when the type was introduced in 1970. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

“It’s a bittersweet milestone — this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel,” Kirby continued.

But times have changed, now carriers have a sharper focus on costs, pursuing constant improvement process to enhance their efficiency and their reliability of their fleets.

According to internal sources, United’s aging 747-400s fleet require routing limitations and extra maintenance attention, while burning 20% more fuel per seat than the 777-300ER and has the lowest customer satisfaction ratings among the passengers.

In the recent years, United has taken delivery of 27 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, and it is about to introduce the Boeing 777-300ER, the first to offer the recently launched Polaris international business class product. Internal sources say United is close to ordering additional 777-300ERs shortly leveraging end of the line discounted prices for the current model  and the 777-X.

Also, it has 35 Airbus A350-1000s on order. Though there are questions surrounding whether this will indeed come to fruition.

“Today there are more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated inflight experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights,” Kirby added.

United’s last 20 747s in service is a mix of owned and leased aircraft, and are now based in San Francisco (SFO). The last week, the last United 747 flight served Chicago O’Hare.

United plans to keep its same base structure, although pilots who currently operate the 747s out of the carrier’s San Francisco (SFO) hub, will transition to other fleets. For the flight attendants, there are no plans to surplus from stations that currently operate the 747s from.

The carrier also plant to keep its maintenance staff at the SFO Maintenance Center. The line maintenance team will continue to work on the widebody aircraft that replace the 747s.

The military charters will also continue. United says it remains committed to the American troops and to working with its US Government partners to facilitate their moves around the country and the world.

Although the airline has not announced a specific retirement date, United apparently is planning “an unforgettable retirement celebration.”

Delta’s 747s are also riding into the Sunset

On the other hand, Delta Air Lines has nine 747-400s in its fleet, which were inherited when it merged with Northwest, it also prepares to retire the type from the fleet by the end of the year, after announcing cuts and changes to its Pacific route network, as it readies the arrival of their Airbus A350-900s.

Delta’s first 747 (Georgia Belle • N9896 • MSN 19896 • LN 72) was delivered on October 2, 1970, and went into service on October 25. The last of the five original Delta 747s flew on April 23, 1977.

This is the cover of a 20-page brochure featuring Delta Air Lines Boeing 747 (clink on the picture to get the brochure) (Credits: Delta Flight Museum)
This is the cover of a 20-page brochure featuring Delta Air Lines Boeing 747 (clink on the picture to get the brochure) (Credits: Delta Flight Museum)

As we head toward the first quarter of the 21st Century, the 747-400 era is coming to an end. Mainstay operators such as Air France, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have retired them. Currently, the largest Boeing 747-400 fleet is owned by British Airways, with 37 aircraft in service.

Once United and Delta retire their 747s from their fleets, there will be no more North American passenger carriers operating the ‘Queen of the Skies’.