Last Rites for a Boeing 747

Real Estate

On Saturday, United hosted five 747 aficionados who bid frequent-flier miles, along with their guests and some employees, for a final tour and celebration of the airline’s last one, tail number N118UA. It is here to be stripped of parts and cut up for recycling. Interest in the 747 retirements has been so strong that United auctioned the trip, including transportation to Tupelo, hotel, a tour of Universal Asset Management’s giant warehouse of reusable aircraft parts and a chance to climb all over the jet’s carcass and give it a final Champagne toast.

Photos: The Era of the 747
A look at some key moments in the reign of the ‘Queen of the Skies’

1970: The aircrew of the first commercial passenger flight of the Boeing 747, which flew from New York to London for Pan American Airways.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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The five winning bids totaled 1.3 million Mileage Plus miles, says Tara From, senior manager of loyalty redemption at United. The two highest bids were 420,000 miles each, or easily enough for $10,000 or more worth of business-class tickets.

“I never had a bad flight on it,” says Ted Birren, a school administrator from the Chicago area who was one of the 420,000-mile bidders. Like many travelers, he says the physics of the 747 still boggle his mind. “To get something that big off the ground is amazing,” he says. “This plane really set the pace for the airline industry as we know it today.”

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The 747—six stories tall, with a wingspan more than 70 yards wide and the fully loaded weight of roughly seven M1 Abrams tanks—was a breakthrough in aviation when it entered passenger service in 1970. It revolutionized international air travel, bringing affordable tickets to the masses and making it far easier to jet between continents.

‘Queen of the Skies’ Is Fading Away
The Boeing 747 revolutionized air travel. But fuel prices proved to be a significant headwind for the four-engine jumbo jet. The number in passenger service worldwide peaked above 800 in the late 1990s.

Source: Data and analytics company FlightGlobal

At the time, aircraft design was more focused on supersonic planes such as Europe’s 100-seat Concorde. Not fully believing in the passenger potential for a whale of a plane, Boeing designed the 747 with a distinctive bubble top for the cockpit so that when used to carry freight, containers could be loaded right up to the nose of the plane.

The shape proved iconic. The 747 became the most identifiable plane in the skies, and a symbol of American engineering and manufacturing prowess in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, the 747 was adopted as Air Force One, further elevating its stature.

With hundreds of seats to sell on each trip, the 747 quickly changed the economics of air travel. Airlines discounted prices to fill the planes, and soon the masses could afford to explore the world. By the summer of 1998, more than 800 747s were ferrying passengers around the globe, according to data and analytics company FlightGlobal.

Many travelers say they have special love for the 747 because it was their first flight, or at least the first they remember. Some recall being awestruck watching the four-engine bird take off: slowly rolling down the runway and gradually tipping its nose toward the heavens, climbing slowly and majestically.

Clockwise from top left: The 747’s engines were already removed when the aviation aficionados who won the bidding arrived Saturday to check out the aircraft; Eric Chiang (left) and Vicky Chiu sit in the cockpit; James Munn admires the massive craft.

Clockwise from top left: The 747’s engines were already removed when the aviation aficionados who won the bidding arrived Saturday to check out the aircraft; Eric Chiang (left) and Vicky Chiu sit in the cockpit; James Munn admires the massive craft. Photos: Andrea Morales for The Wall Street Journal(3)

Two-engine planes exert more brute force—the hares to the 747’s tortoise. Passenger jets have to still be able to take off after one engine fails, requiring each engine on a two-engine plane to be, in a sense, over-sized. A four-engine plane doesn’t have pumped-up biceps so it doesn’t leap off the ground into a steep ascent.

But the four engines led to the plane’s descent from passenger airline service. Two-engine jets burn less fuel yet grew to closely match the 747’s carrying capacity. United had 374 seats on its recently retired 747-400s; its 777-300s carry 366 passengers and burn about 25% less fuel.

Airbus has struggled with its four-engine superjumbo, too, the double-deck A380, which is larger than the 747. Over the past 12 years, only 223 A380s have been delivered to airlines. No airline other than Emirates has placed an A380 order since January 2016. The trend among airlines internationally has been to fly past big connecting hubs on long trips and offer flights directly to cities on smaller, long-range planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, both carrying roughly 250 to 350 passengers.

Photos: Andrea Morales for The Wall Street Journal(2)

Left, the frequent-fliers who won the auction and some United employees dined under a tent beside the 747, which flew its final flight in November. Right, visitors toasted the iconic plane in its disused cabin. Photos: Andrea Morales for The Wall Street Journal(2)

Today’s coach-cabin seat squeeze has created lingering love for 747s, which never seemed as claustrophobic. The sidewalls of the lower-deck cabin don’t have curves that cramp space. Like an old station wagon, the 747 cabin feels expansive. It even has a staircase to the upper deck.

British Airways is still flying 36 of the 747 planes and Lufthansa 32, according to FlightGlobal’s database. Korean, KLM, Air China and Qantas still have a handful. In all, 22 airlines are still flying the 747 for passengers, FlightGlobal says. Singapore retired its last 747 in 2012; Air France in 2016. Only three carriers—Lufthansa, Korean and Air China—have the newest version, called the 747-8.

United’s final 747 was manufactured in 1999 and flew for only 19 years. That’s only middle-aged—many planes fly for 25 to 35 years. But the 747 market is in such decline that N118UA was worth more for its parts than selling it to another airline. United retains ownership and will get proceeds from parts sold by Universal Asset Management, less commission.

The final passenger flight Nov. 7 was from San Francisco to Honolulu—retracing United’s original 747 flight in 1970. N118UA was then flown to an aircraft storage and recycling facility in Victorville, Calif., where it was stripped of airline gear like galley carts and coffee pots, plus anything that said “United,” according to Jim Garcia, United’s senior manager of fleet surplus sales. Then it was flown to Tupelo.

Within 24 hours, engines were removed—they’ll be inspected, refurbished if necessary and likely reused quickly. Valuable parts like cockpit computers and navigation electronics were taken out, but most of the parts-picking and recycling of aluminum and other metals was put on hold for the United frequent-flier event. (United says it will start auctioning 747 hardware to customers this fall.)

Universal Asset Management will cut apart and recycle United’s last 747. Reusable aircraft parts are stored in the company’s giant warehouse. Photo: Andrea Morales for The Wall Street Journal

James Munn, a Minneapolis-based television engineer for live sporting events, records each aircraft he flies and knew he had flown on N118UA from London to the U.S. once. Like many travelers, he books 747s whenever he has the opportunity. Boarding the un-air-conditioned plane on a hot, humid Southern afternoon, his eyes got big. “It hasn’t changed too much,” he says.

Mr. Munn sat in seat 1A, first-class in the nose, his favorite seat on United. The cabin was pale, dark and sad—décor and equipment stripped out, seats and overhead bins looking dated and dusty. But Mr. Munn was all smiles. “The 747 represents the golden age of travel,’’ he says.

Richard Schmidt, also a 420,000-mile bidder, first flew aboard a 747 in 1974 and most recently two weeks ago on Lufthansa. “It was a great ride,” says the chief executive of an energy technology company in Houston.

Eric Chiang remembers his first flight aboard a 747, with Northwest Airlines to Taiwan from Detroit with a stop in Tokyo. “I remember as a 4-year-old how massive the airplane looked,” he says.

Now an economist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fl., he came to Tupelo to get a behind-the-scenes look at the object of his affection, and learn more about airline operations. “It’s sad that United’s no longer flying it,” he says. “Every time it takes off it’s a thrill.”

About the 747

Flight Manifest

Father of the 747: Boeing engineer Joe Sutter

First testflight: Feb. 9, 1969

First commercial passenger flight: Jan. 22, 1970, New York to London

Launch customer: Pan American World Airways ordered 25 in April 1966

Speed: Original version 640 mph; latest version 660 mph

List Price: $402.9 million for the 747-8

Total Orders: 1,568 (including freighters)

Business jet/VIP 747s: 8

Book

‘747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation’ by Joe Sutter

747s in Museums

Delta Flight Museum, Atlanta

Museum of Flight, Seattle

Museum of Air & Space, Paris Le Bourget

Aviodrome, Lelystad, Netherlands

Qantas Founders Outback Museum, Longreach, Australia

Everything You Wanted to Know about the 747

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Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

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