British Airways, the world’s biggest operator of Boeing Co. 747-400s, is retiring its entire fleet of the jumbo jets with immediate effect because of the damage the coronavirus has done to air travel.
“It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic,” the airline, a unit of IAG SA, said in a statement.
The carrier’s 31 Boeing 747-400 planes, which could seat 345 passengers in four classes, flew to destinations including Beijing, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town and Lagos, until Covid-19 struck and forced the airline to park them. British Airways had planned to finish phasing out the aircraft in 2024.
The pandemic has devastated the aviation industry, with governments around the world imposing unprecedented travel restrictions to try to stop its spread. Airlines have grounded much or all of their fleets as they recalibrate to the slump in demand. They’re also assessing which aircraft will best suit their needs when the market recovers to pre-virus levels, something that’s not widely expected until at least 2023.
Four-engine jumbo jets like the 747 and Airbus SE A380 have been among the first on airline chopping blocks in the wake of the travel downturn. Routes served by the 747s, which accounted for about 11% of British Airways’ fleet, will be replaced by twin-engine Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 long-haul aircraft that British Airways says are about 25% more fuel efficient. The carrier has 32 787s and six A350s in its fleet, with orders for another 10 787s and 12 A350s.
Qantas Airways Ltd. is among the other carriers to recently retire the 747, offering farewell “joy flights” above Australian cities earlier this week. A handful continue to operate the jumbo for passenger services, including Air China Ltd. and Korean Air Lines Co.
“While the aircraft will always have a special place in our heart, as we head into the future we will be operating more flights on modern, fuel-efficient aircraft such as our new A350s and 787s, to help us achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” British Airways said.
Boeing will stop making the 747 soon, with the last likely to roll out of a Seattle-area factory in about two years, people familiar with the matter have said. Airbus is also moving on from the giant A380 double-decker, as airline customers turn in favor of twin-engine aircraft for long-range flights.
Unlike Lufthansa and Air France, the British Airways plans to continue flying its 12 A380 super jumbos, according to a person familiar with the matter. It also plans to continue taking new 787 and A350 deliveries on schedule, the person said, asking not to be named as the discussions were confidential.
British Airways has come under fire for its plans to eliminate 12,000 jobs, about 30% of its workforce, while also tapping a state furlough initiative aimed at protecting employment. In another sign of its precarious financial position, the airline is planning to sell paintings and prints from its corporate art collection.
IAG has been working with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley to review its strategy and liquidity needs, people familiar with the matter said last month. Its other units include Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling.
British Airways took delivery of its first 747-400 in 1989 and its last 10 years later.
The global 747 fleet peaked in July 1998 at 986 actively flown, according to researcher Cirium. As of Tuesday, there were 502 in service, in storage or on order. Of those, 162 are for passenger flights, with just 30 in service.