Boeing 747s flying away from SFO?

A United 747-400 enroute to Osaka (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust / Flickr)

A United 747-400 enroute to Osaka (Photo: InSapphoWeTrust / Flickr)

Do you love watching elegant Boeing 747s lumber over the Peninsula or the Bay as they approach SFO? Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to occasionally ride upstairs in “the bubble” in business class on the way to Asia or Europe?

Well, enjoy it while you can.  As more airlines worldwide opt to retire their 747s and replace them with 777s, SFO will see fewer of this iconic aircraft. The phasing out is already well underway…

Air China is the latest to delete the 747 from its SFO schedule. Last month it replaced the big bird with a 777 on the SFO-Beijing run. It now flies the 777 exclusively between China and the US.

Cathay Pacific has scheduled its last 747 flight between SFO and Hong Kong for August 31, to be replaced by three-class 777 service (economy, premium economy and business, but no first class).

Air New Zealand is scheduled to fly its last 747 from Auckland to SFO in September, having phased in the 777.

EVA Air's 747s flew away from SFO in 2012 (Photo: Danny Fritsche / Flickr)

EVA Air’s 747s flew away from SFO in 2012 (Photo: Danny Fritsche / Flickr)

EVA Air’s 747 flights flew away in November 2012. And of course, we lost QANTAS’ daily red tail 747 flight back in 2011 when the carrier moved the flight to Dallas Ft Worth.

United, whose SFO-based 747 fleet dominates other carriers’, is on a similar bandwagon. In 2012 the airline announced it would shift its 747 focus to SFO. However, after a year or so, it did an about-face and schedules show it replacing many Asia- and Australia-bound routes with other aircraft.

For example, a new 787 Dreamliner is coming to United’s SFO-Osaka run. On March 27 United will deploy newly refurbished three-cabin 777-200ERs on SFO-Sydney, replacing the 747s it currently uses. (Photos of 777-200 interiors here) The best news about having 777 on SFO-SYD is that coach passengers will soon have individual seatback screens for the 14-hour haul…something the 747 sorely lacked. For the time being, United will continue to fly 747s from SFO to: Beijing, Frankfurt (2x/day), Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo-Narita (2x/day).

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A couple of airlines are taking the opposite approach and going big. Lufthansa will fly the A380 from SFO beginning in April and plans to use it year-round…not just seasonally.

Previously the German carrier alternated between a 747 and A380 on the route.  And Air France will bring back the behemoth double-decker aircraft for seasonal service on SFO-Paris, April through October.

Business class up in the nose of a Boeing 747-400- coming to SFO this month! (Photo: KLM)

Business class up in the nose of a KLM Boeing 747-400- coming to SFO this month! (Photo: KLM)

But it’s not all bad news on the 747 front. KLM will replace its A330 and MD-11 jets on SFO-Amsterdam with a 747-400 later this month. The very best news is that the 747 will have KLM’s new lie-flat business class seat. A KLM spokesperson told TravelSkills that the 747 would remain on the route “until at least the end of the summer.”

By year’s end, it looks like SFO’s 747 flights will be limited to United, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Philippine Airlines and China Airlines.

The 777 is seen by airlines as being right-sized for Asia and west-bound markets from the Bay Area due to its combination of capacity, range and fuel efficiency. The 747 family seats 400-500 passengers, depending on airline configuration, while the 777 family’s capacity is in the 300-390 range. The 747, with its four engines, is a fuel hog, and airlines have found it’s more profitable to fly smaller aircraft like the twin-engine, fuel-efficient 777 more times per day if necessary, than a single mega-aircraft flight.

There are other factors to consider in the complex world of route/aircraft strategy, too. When a United route executive was asked why the company was not investing in the new 747-8 to update its 747 fleet, he noted (off the record) that the aircraft is so large that its resale market is limited. If the aircraft/route does not pan out, there is limited opportunity to unload the aircraft in the secondary market. (Likely the same reason United is not buying A380s.)

First class onboard on of Pan Am's first 747s (Photo: Tim Graham / Flickr)

First class onboard on of Pan Am’s first 747s (Photo: Tim Graham / Flickr)

Boeing’s 747 “Jumbo Jet” made history at its inception in 1970: it was the world’s first widebody aircraft. The manufacturer allowed Pan Am, its inaugural customer, to have significant input in the aircraft design, and the plane’s commercial debut was a Pan Am flight from New York to London Heathrow on January 22, 1970. Since then its distinctive design and upper deck have captured the imagination of passengers. Will Bay Area travelers lose access to this iconic aircraft? Only time will tell.

Does the 747 hold a special memory for you or a preferred experience? Please leave your comments below.

–Nancy Branka

BAT contributor Nancy Branka

BAT contributor Nancy Branka

We are pleased to welcome Nancy Branka as a contributor to TravelSkills! She’s covered the business travel beat for years as managing editor of Executive Travel magazine and is now turning her talents toward helping keep TravelSkills Readers informed.  Nancy lives in the East Bay and primarily flies out of Oakland International– we’ll rely on her to expand our coverage on that side of the Bay! Today she’s jetting across the country on American Airlines’ brand new A321T and will provide a report on her trip next week. –– Chris




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  • noname

    When I was little, I always dreamed of flying on Concorde someday. That never happened. As an adult, I dreamed of flying on a 747, and it appears that will never happen either. I’ve never been in a position to buy a ticket and go to the still exotic places 747s go. They’ll be grounded long before I get my act together. So for now I have to look at them flying in and out and wonder what it must be like. It’s a marvel watching them take off so steeply, you can look “down” upon the top of the wing as the plane departs. It looks like it can’t possibly fly. But it does. We don’t get many 747s at my local airport but one recent day I managed to see a 747 and an A380 departing around the same time. It was a good day.

  • Douglas

    Several trips in the bubble and one in the nose cone. Amazing plane to demonstrate flight, in a plane that has been a symbol of the grace and sexy appeal to Aviation. The Friendship as one example, the days going by, until this plane will be sunset. I overnighted at the 747 hostel in Stockholm, enjoyed the cockpit suite. Slightly weird feeling but for an aviation lover, connects more to the heart.

  • Gil_Gunderson

    Air France had their Economy Plus seats up in “the bubble” when we flew them from SFO-CDG a few years ago. It was a pretty nice upgrade. Maybe not as special as the old days, but far better than sitting in steerage.

  • Mark Whitted

    My first 747 flight was when my Air Force family was moving back from Hawaii in 1973. I was 15. HNL-SFO. We were in Economy of course. But at that time United had “cafe” seating in one section. My brothers and I sat up there most of the flight (including landing) playing cards. Later, when I was a computer programmer for AA, my wife and I made several trips on AA 747s. I think my favorites were in First Class upstairs on -200s and SPs. It was like a private jet. 16 seats on the -200 to Hawaii. 11 on the -SP to NRT. Our own lav, flight attendant, and the flight crew. I believe NRT-DFW on the -SP was my last 747 flight. :(

  • Jayson

    I flew upstairs on a B744 in Virgin Atlantic’s “Upper Class” from IAD to LHR back when they only had Upper Class seats upstairs. I understand it isn’t anything compared to the glory days of upstairs lounges and such, but still a special experience.

  • Dean

    I have so many great memories of flights on the “Queen of The Skies” and it’s sad to see their numbers decreasing here at SFO. She rides rides like a limousine in rough air and Pan Am’s “Dining In The Sky” on the upper deck was an amazing experience and a memorable way to dine while cruising across the Pacific.Thanks for bringing back some great memories.

  • Don M

    Thinking about it, I believe it was actually Curacao (remember this was a LONG time ago).  (St. Thomas’s runway was WAY too short for a 747.)  We did visit St. Thomas soon after that, but that when the pilots had to use full brakes to stop  the plane (the biggest allowed was a 727)  before it would crash into the gas station at the end of the runway.  It happened many times and the owners just kept replacing them (and getting money to do so).

    Watching 747s come into St. Maarten is interesting because it is also a shorter runway (although longer than St. Thomas) so the pilots have to land just over the fence (where lots of people love to feel the force of the air) to be able to stop in time.  Most of the 747s are from Europe.

  • Chris McGinnis

    I love the idea of retiring up the spiral staircase for a little snack or refreshment. I never got to do that, but like to dream about it! :) — chris

  • Chris McGinnis

    WOW! A 747 to St Thomas? Those were the jumbo days, no? — chris

  • Don M

    We took our honeymoon trip to Rio in 1973. We didn’t have great weather and I had a “reaction” to the cute little bananas on a trip after being encouraged to have them by a travel guide. So we decided to take another trip to St. Thomas on an American 747. We were in first class and the only other 2 people were one of the pilot’s wife and son. This was on Thanksgiving Day and service was great as well as the meal. (We were both airline employees, Allegheny, so we were flying on those benefits.)
    My most recent 747 flight was on Air China in the back of economy right in front of a bulkhead so our seats were not able to be reclined for a 14 hour flight. On the return flight, we had exactly the same seats! Those were long flights!
    On a side note, Chinese airports are incredibly large and they use some busses to get you to their aircraft which can be a LONG way from the airport itself even though there are a log of jetways, they have too much demand to support all the aircraft from using them. I had thought US airports could be large, but they are not.

  • TheRobin

    I say good riddance! I had to fly to both FRA and SYD on a United 747 a few years back. I’m not an elite, so I had to ride in the cattle section… worst plain rides EVER! It’s a total disgrace that they still don’t have personal video screens in Econ on United 747s!

  • Kirk

    Don’t wait around for United to get its act together, just fly another airliner. There are many options to chose from, and virtually all of them are an improvement

  • bluelion

    Not just SFO, every major airport in the US is seeing a decline in 747 traffic. United’s newest one was delivered in 12/2000. The 777-300ER seems to be taking over, even those sales are declining. What did the AA spokesman say a week or so ago, the future is the Airbus 350. I also enjoyed my travels on the 747, my special story is after the 1989 earthquake, I was flying United from Medford, Oregon to Tampa and we made our connection in SFO, there was a 747SP at the gate to fly us to ORD. The only time I got to ride the SP.

  • macon2004

    I used to commute JFK-GVA in the “heyday” of the 747 First CLass – upstairs lounge where SwissAir once served raclette as a snack on the westbound leg!

  • Michael James

    My first flight was in a 747. Flew Pan AM from SFO-JFK-SNN. It was a great flight and I remember quite well the “tube” ear piece to watch the movie. Looking forward to my next 747 trip next week, SFO-FRA on LH.

  • Kent B

    When I was 11 I flew my first solo trip, transcon trip (LA to NYC). At the time, the 747’s upstairs was a lounge. Not knowing any better, I wandered up from my economy seat to have drink. About half way through, the stewardess (yes, that was what they were called back then), came over and explained that the upstairs was only for the first class passengers. Obviously upset that I was not entitled to use the lounge, she was kind enough to let me finish my coke and have a snack before escorting me back to my seat downstairs. To this day, the joy of sitting in the lounge still lives in my memory.

  • mrisu2you

    Re: 747 experience….I was 13 years old when I saw my first 747 at SFO. I clearly remember walking through the terminal when my Dad told me to look over at the new “jumbo” airplane. I believe it was TWA. I remembe shaking my head thinking, “there is no way in heck that thing can get off the ground.” I was totally in awe. Second memory was just a few years ago flying to Hong Kong in a FULL 747, undoubtedly loaded with fuel. Captain announced “about a 14-hour flight” (“About”?) What impressed me was how the pilot maneuvered that big beast during and after take off – he flew it like he was a kid holding a paper airplane making turns and climbs you couldn’t imaging possible for such a huge machine. The sheer power of those engines!

  • Gil Ohana

    It will be a great day when United goes back to using the 777 for the Frankfurt route. 11 hours on a plane without seat back video makes for a very long flight, and the big screens in front of the bulkhead rows makes it hard to nap when you sit toward the front of Economy Plus.