More United 747’s coming to SFO

A United 747 (Photo: United Airlines)

Starting in April of 2013, United plans to turn its San Francisco International Airport base into a 747 hub of sorts.

In an internal memo obtained by TravelSkills, United tells employees it’s doing this to concentrate all the 747 parts, tools and spares at one hub, resulting in a more reliable 747 fleet. Maintenance for United’s internationally configured 767s and 777s will be consolidated at Chicago, O’Hare.

This means in addition to current 747 flights from SFO to places like Sydney, Hong Kong or Tokyo, it will soon be all-747s-all-the-time between SFO and Frankfurt, Heathrow, Osaka and Taipei (starting in Oct). United’s new flights to Paris, which begin April 11, will use a B767.

It also means using 747’s on its Honolulu-Tokyo NRT flight. The 747s on the LAX-Sydney route will remain in place.

Cozy, updated United business class upstairs on a 747. (Photo: TransWorldProductions / Flickr)

United has 26 747s in its fleet, with an average age of 17 years.

While some fliers may consider the 747 the “Queen of the Skies,” many airlines have begun to dump the plane recently in favor of the more fuel efficient Boeing 777 and 787. For example, Singapore Airlines, which at one time operated more 747’s (37) than any other airline, retired the big bird last Spring.

Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Malaysian have already or will soon phase the 747 out of their fleets. British Airways is now the largest 747 operator, with 55 in its fleet. Among US carriers, only United and Delta operate the 747. Delta recently did a nice job re-doing interiors (business and coach) on its fleet of 16 747’s.

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At an average age of 17 years, United’s 747 fleet is getting a little long in the tooth. For business and first class passengers, seats have been upgraded to true lie-flat seats — and it does not get much better than a nice lie-flat seat upstairs on a 747 (see photo above).

Back of the plane on United’s 747-400’s (Photo: Flikr / Altair78)

But the situation is a bit different at the back of the plane– Unlike its revamped 777s and 767s, there is no seatback entertainment in economy or premium economy classes on United’s 747s. Even United CEO Jeff Smisek has said that economy class on United’s 747s is “unacceptable.”

Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Concierge service told TravelSkills: “The good news is that having the 747 operation focused on SFO where maintenance is will help improve reliability.  The 747 fleet isn’t exactly the best operational performer for United, and I assume that’s why they’re making this change.  The bad news is that coach still sucks.  They still have overhead video screens back there and the 3-4-3 configuration isn’t going to be a favorite for many.  They say they are putting in some wireless streaming video that people can use on their own devices, but good luck finding a device with a battery that will last all the way to Hong Kong.”

What do YOU think about United’s fleet of 747s? Is a 747 base at SFO a good thing…or not? What’s your preferred bird for transoceanic flights? Why? Please leave your comments below.


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  • PaulusJnr

    There’s nothing positive to be said about the United experience. The service is consistently awful. You’re guaranteed to have rude staff on the ground and in the air. The food is disgusting. Not just bad absolutely revolting. Flights more often than not are late. On board facilities are shocking. 14 hour flight with no seat back TV, inedible food, staff that come close to spitting at you dare you ask anything and they don’t even give you a free drink to ease the pain. Compare that with their competitors on the same routes, Singapore, Ana, Asiana, British Airways, Virgin…just how do they get away with it?
    United single handedly undermining the US’ reputation for good customer service. Clearly Jeff Smisek doesn’t give a sh**. Which is a coincidence because that’s exactly what I’d like to give him.

    What’s amazing is that you think it can’t get any worse and yet, year on year it does. Not just standards slipping further and further down into hell with indifferent attitudes but policy dictated by the man on high taking away what small benefits were offered to frequent fliers.

    Worst international airline, bar none.

  • jayln

    I wish united flew there 747-400 to Houston on a daily/weekly flights as well as the 787-8 on daily flights and I thought iah was united main hub

  • Tyler

    Well guys we need to realize that these planes are (average) 17 years old, of course they’re outdated and there’s gonna be some drawbacks. “There will never be a perfect plane.” United is not and won’t purchase more 747’s because those are out of the times. However, These planes really makes sense to have, especially with United’s move to station them in SFO. If you’re flying across the pacific ocean (Which from what it sounds like will have the biggest impact/most travel) and lose an engine, it’s not too big of a deal. However, if you have a twin engine 777 or 787, You better start looking for places to land or call coast guard. This isn’t United’s fault. And do you see Jeff Smisek doing anything about the TV’s in in the back of the 47’s? No, and is that his problem? Nope. They are doing what they need to in order to keep up with the world. All the power to him.

  • Daniel

    I agree with Kyle 100%. However, I have been on UA for oversea flight. I never been late for leaving BKK. Always on time. Maybe once for 15 minutes but I can’t remember. Didn’t have problem connection in NRT bound for LAX. I do love being in upper level with business class. Can’t complain. 777 is nice but can’t match 747’s in upper level class. I just feel different up there and lots of space by window to put all things inside since the new seat won’t allow me to store laptop which I miss old seat which is so easy to put laptop with big pocket and felt like home with recliner. Easy to get in and out. The small shelf is useless on new business class. I’m also Star Alliance member but I fly UA to earn double miles. However, I fly on other airlines with award miles. They are amazing especially ANA, Asiana Airline, and Singapore. Way superior which UA need to learn from them especially with FA’s attitude. Singapore FA are way amazing and they kept their head cool with idiot Filipino walking to toilet just 5 min before landing. UA would bark for sure big time. That’s American’s attitude. How sad.

  • Kyle Gerrard

    I suppose UA can uphold its reasongin to purely economic considerations, with little concern to passenger concerns. More 747s in to and out of SFO means more long lines, delays and irritable passengers. I’m a Star Alliance member but, to be prefectly honest, seldom travel UA anymore, except for occasional domestic trips, but certainly never international trips. Asian carriers are, and always will be, superior to US carriers, period.

  • Jonnie

    Worst business-class flight I ever took was a recent UA flight from BKK-SFO return in the “Business First” product…crappy seat, crappy food, mediocre service, oh, and 1-hour late leaving Bangkok! Never again…Asian carriers all the way.

  • martin

    If you’re flying coach on a plane without in-seat entertainment, bring an iPod or iPad loaded with movies and TV shows. I do this even when flying business class, as it’s easy to get tired of the on-board selection. You’d be surprised how absorbed you can get into the small screen of an iPod, especially if you’re bored on an international flight. You can port recordings from a TiVo to an iPod with little effort – and when you’re on hour 10, you’ll be glad you did.

  • LNH

    I will see a lot of competition from other carriers that do offer personal TVs in economy. I recently flew Lufthansa A380 to Frankfurt. Loved it. However on the return it was the dreaded United 747 with the overhead monitors. You would think with an airline like United, they’d be up with the times in terms of entertainment for every passenger. The overhead monitors are so 80s. I guess on my trips to Europe I will look at Lufthansa, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, SWISS, KLM and Air France (when they use the A380)

  • David Bowles

    astenv is right – those departures ARE grouped. However, if United uses more of them in their cross-country flights, all the better. I’m tired of those 737 or 757 flights westward which take so much longer and are always packed full.

    What I would like to see is more 777/787 cross-country flights in the future…dream on?

  • Paxie

    Of course it makes sense to use the old, low tech aircraft in SF. After all, nobody ’round here appreciates innovation or can afford to purchase a modern passenger experience.

  • John Shea

    My guess is that in about 5 years or less, the 747s will begin to retire (with 17 years now being on the old side), and United and Delta will begin to integrate the newer aircraft, newer versions of the 777, and the 787, and perhaps a consideration for 747-8 or A380 for the heavier routes to Asia.

    Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, United flew all 747-200s to Honolulu (about 4 a day), at least one to New York, and one to Chicago, and one to Washington DC, and subbing with DC-10s at various off season times. In the Early 70s, Delta once flew a daily 747 to Dallas in the morning, and a 747 to Atlanta at about 10pm (long before the Northwest Merge) then L-1011s, then they dumped the 747s during the Oil crisis of the mid-late 70s, and so did others. Northwest Orient, then named just Northwest flew 747 SFO-Honolulu-Tokyo, then went nonstop against Pan Am and JAL with nonstop SFO-Tokyo on the 747s.

    747-200s I flew on…..United, Pan Am, TWA, Northwest, Aer Lingus (all great flights, some fully packed, but ok since you could throw a football from one end to another) Sometimes the back had empty seats galore on the return from Honolulu, especially on United.

    Only flew one time on a 747-400 from Paris to LAX on Air France in the upper deck. How nice that was until we hit the Santa Ana’s on decent into LAX. Then it was not so nice.

    The 747-8 will likely be the last of the great aircraft, and there aren’t many orders for that.

    So, as they say in the sky and Saturday Night Live…….Have a nice day, and “bu bye, now I said bu bye, bu bye

  • Mark

    As part of a refit of the Economy cabin on UA’s 747s, each aircraft is being fitted with global WiFi. In addition to providing internet access for a fee, the WiFi will allow customers to stream in-flight-entertainment to their devices (tablets, smartphones and laptops) in place of installing in seat entertainment screens. There’s already one aircraft outfitted and the rest are being scheduled through 2013. All this to address the “unacceptable” moniker applied by CEO Smisek.

  • astenv

    UA has a nasty habit of grouping departures of their large planes. The result is HUGE lines at SFO. Elite fliers included.