United Airlines had been hinting for a while that it might speed up the retirement of the venerable Boeing 747 from its long-haul fleet. This week company officials confirmed that October 2018 is the target date for the end of the airline’s 747 flights.
United execs said in an investor conference call that all 20 of the aging wide-bodies should be permanently grounded by then, as the airline relies on 777s and 787 Dreamliners to take over its long-distance routes.
The newer long-haul aircraft in United’s fleet can’t carry as many passengers as the 747. Its 777-200s accommodate 266 to 364, and Dreamliners can seat 219 (787-8) or 252 (787-9), vs. a passenger capacity of 374 for United’s remaining 747-400s.
United will likely be the last U.S. airline to fly the 747, since the only other one that has the plane in its fleet – Delta – expects to retire the last of its few remaining 376-passenger 747s by the end of 2017. Delta is turning to Airbus jets as long-haul replacements, including the A330 and the new A350.
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The U.S. carriers are not alone in turning away from the 747 . Boeing recently said that because of a lack of new orders, it plans to reduce production of the 747 – its current model is the 747-8 – from 12 a year to just six. Competitor Airbus is seeing a similar shrinking of demand for its competing jumbo, the A380.
Economics are at the heart of the trend. The four-engine 747 can’t compete on fuel efficiency with the newer twin-engine wide-bodies from both manufacturers. Other international airlines have also been taking the 747 out of their fleets over the past several years, although a few – like Lufthansa and Korean Air – are using the newer 747-8, and British Airways has been overhauling its 747s to keep them flying for the years ahead.
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