One of the Boeing 747’s most loyal customers is sending the jumbo jet to retirement

A Qantas Boeing 747-400.

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A Qantas Boeing 747-400.
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REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

  • Qantas announced that it will retire the remaining six Boeing 747 jumbo jets in its fleet by 2020.
  • The planes will be replaced by six additional Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
  • This marks the end of Boeing 747 service with Qantas, which began in 1971.
  • The 747 will continue to make passenger flights with other international airlines.
  • Boeing has sold more than 1,500 747s but has struggled to find new customers for the plane.

On Wednesday, Qantas announced that it will retire the remaining six Boeing 747s in its fleet by 2020. The announcement comes at the at the same time the Australian airline confirmed the purchase of six additional Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.

The Boeing 747 has been a hallmark of Qantas’ international fleet since 1971.

“This really is the end of one era and the start of another,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement. “The jumbo has been the backbone of Qantas International for more than 40 years and we’ve flown almost every type that Boeing built. It’s fitting that its retirement is going to coincide with our centenary in 2020.”

The final six Qantas jumbo jets are expected to be the six 747-400ERs delivered to the airline between 2002 and 2003. With extra fuel tanks for additional range, Qantas owns the only six 747-400ERs ever built.

In 2017, the jumbo left passenger service with US airlines when both Delta and United retire their 747-400 fleets.

Qantas announced recently that its traditional 747 service to Los Angeles will be replaced by both the Airbus A380 and the 787-9.

Although the 747 will still grace the skies above the US with foreign carriers like Lufthansa and Korean Air or with cargo carriers like UPS and Atlas, the idea that US passenger airlines will no longer operate what is arguably America’s most iconic and successful airplane is sad.

Alas, economics trumps nostalgia. The reality is that the four-engined jumbo is big, expensive, and thirsty, especially when compared to twin jets like the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A350. The 777-300ER replaced the 747 at United while the A350-900 took over for jumbo at Delta.

Consumer tastes have also changed. During the 747’s heyday, long-haul international flights operated almost exclusively between major hubs and frequently made several intermediate stops. These days, point-to-point flights are becoming increasingly popular, with no stops and no need to fly to a major hub – hence the popularity of smaller widebody jets like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

But before we let the grand lady of the sky fade into history, let’s take a look back at its extraordinary life as the most iconic airplane in the world.


The Boeing 747 first flew in February 1969.


The big jet and the Everett, Washington, factory in which it was built were designed and constructed in just 16 months by a team of 50,000 Boeing employees.


The people involved became known as the “Incredibles.”


Joe Sutter, the man who was tasked with leading the plane’s engineering team, was generally regarded as the “Father of the 747.”

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Boeing

Sadly, Sutter passed away in 2016 at the age of 95.

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REUTERS/Anthony Bolante

The 747 was a major gamble for Boeing. The prevailing thinking at the time was that the world was heading toward supersonic travel.


Boeing bet that people wanted to travel in comfort for less money.


Airlines lined up to buy the jumbo jet.

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Qantas

As the legend goes, Pan Am boss Juan Trippe told Boeing that he needed a plane twice the size of …


… the Boeing 707 the airline operated at the time.

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Boeing

To give Pan Am the capacity it was looking for, Boeing added a second aisle to the cabin — thus creating the wide-body jet.


According to Boeing, the 747 could carry 3,400 pieces of luggage and be unloaded in just seven minutes.


With seating for as many as 550 passengers, the 747 truly dwarfs the 707 as well as other workhorse jets of the era, such as …


… The Douglas DC-8 and England’s de Havilland Comet.


When the mighty jumbo jet entered service in 1970 with Pan Am, the public was mesmerized.


In the 1970s, Boeing was joined by a duo of smaller three-engine wide-body jets: the Lockheed L-1011 and …


… the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.


Boeing followed up the original 747-100 with …


… a new variant in late 1971 with more powerful engines and greater range called the 747-200 series.

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Flickr/Aero Icarus

A decade later, Boeing updated the 747 again with newer engines and an enlarged second deck. This version was called the “-300.”

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Flickr/Aero Icarus

The -300 didn’t prove to be as popular as Boeing would have liked. So in 1989, Boeing launched the -400. It featured modern avionics, a fully glass cockpit and greater range. It would go on to be the most popular of the 747 variants.

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Boeing

In 2011, Boeing launched the latest version of the jumbo jet, called the 747-8. At 250 feet, it’s the longest airliner ever built.

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Boeing raises a curtain to unveil the 747-8 jumbo passenger jet to thousands of employees and guests at the company’s Everett, Washington commercial airplane manufacturing facility.
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Reuters/Anthony Bolante

The 747 has been deployed in a variety of ways, including as a firefighting water tanker …

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REUTERS/Johannes Eisele

… a space-shuttle carrier …

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REUTERS/Ho New

a freighter …

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REUTERS/Johannes Eisele

… and as the official head-of-state aircraft for …


… the world’s superpowers.


But the 747 really became a cultural icon when it was the plane to have for the world’s major airlines. For many years, it seemed as if you weren’t playing in the big leagues unless you were flying the jumbo.

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REUTERS/Toby Melville

Boeing has sold more than 1,500 747s.

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Boeing

The venerable Boeing jumbo jet has outlasted the supersonic Concorde as well as its subsonic contemporaries like the DC-10. the DC-10’s replacement the MD-11, the Lockheed L-1011, and the Airbus A340.


Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that the jumbo jet will survive its latest slew of challengers, which include Airbus’ double-deck A380 superjumbo and …

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REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

… the A350XWB twin-engine “mini-jumbo.”

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Flickr/Delta

The 747 has also lost sales to its corporate siblings, the 777 mini-jumbo and …

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KLM

… the 787 Dreamliner.

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Boeing

In 2017, United and…

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United Airlines

… Delta Air Lines retired their 747-400 fleets. As a result, the 747 is no longer operating scheduled passenger service with major US airlines.

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Flickr/Tomás Del Coro

To compensate, Boeing has slowed down production of the 747 to just one aircraft every two months in an attempt to buy the sales team more time to generate orders.

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British Airways

Don’t fret just yet jumbo jet aficionados, the 747-8I will fly on for years to come with international carriers like Lufthansa, Air China, and Korean Air.

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Boeing