It’s not the farewell that Alan Joyce wanted for the Qantas Boeing 747 – but then, this isn’t the year which the CEO and the airline wanted.
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Qantas, and a year-long program of centenary celebrations was already underway.
The arrival of three more Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners would have allowed a graceful retirement for the Boeing 747 in December, closing one proud chapter in the airline’s history in readiness for another – the launch of non-stop Project Sunrise flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London, Paris and New York, using a fleet of ultra-long range Airbus A350-1000 jets.
In another reality, one free of Covid-19 – the reality we were still seeing back on January 1 – that’s still the case. But in this reality, everything has changed.
All of Qantas’ international flights have been grounded, and most will remain wiped from the schedule through to early 2021.
The delivery of those Boeing 787 Dreamliners, plus 18 Airbus A321neo jets, has been pushed back. Project Sunrise, and its bespoke A350-1000 fleet, is on hold. The A380 superjumbos are being stored in California’s arid Mojave Desert until at least 2023 – and even then, only half the fleet may return.
And the majestic Boeing 747, which has been part of Qantas’ history for almost half of those 100 years, is being bundled out six months ahead of schedule.
Qantas waves goodbye to the Boeing 747
Today’s departure of flight QF7474 from Sydney to Los Angeles, and then on to the infamous Mojave Desert boneyard, is the end of line for the red-tailed jumbos.
It comes a week after British Airways announced it would retire all 31 of its Boeing 747s “with immediate effect” owing to the downturn in travel sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, in the wake of similar decisions by KLM and Virgin Atlantic.
The past decade has seen other 747 stalwarts – Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines – retire their jumbo jets, usually with fanfare fitting for an aircraft so warmly remembered by travellers.
Qantas, which had mapped out similar plans, brought forward some of those elements such as scenic joyflights over Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. But the airline originally intended similar jaunts over other cities, along with Points Plane flights where every seat could be booked using frequent flyer points.
Lufthansa is one of the few major airlines still flying the Boeing 747 but is already sending its oldest jets to the scrapyard, while Boeing itself is pulling the plug on the 747 line.
With the last Airbus A380 superjumbo now being assembled, the era of the large fuel-thirsty four-engine passenger planes has drawn to a close.
The Boeing 747's journey with Qantas
For Qantas, that era began in 1967, when the airline agreed to purchase four Boeing 747 aircraft for delivery from 1971.
The futuristic jumbo jets brought with them sizeable economy class cabins which helped democratise international air travel, trading the then-typical comfort of first class in exchange for lower and more accessible ticket prices.
They also took the first class experience to another level – quite literally so – with an upper deck lounge where first class passengers could mingle, dine, relax, drink, and even smoke.
This video showcases the travel experience on board the Qantas Boeing 747 in the early 1970s.
Business class gets its wings
A decade later, Qantas used the Boeing 747 to launch a whole new way to travel, with the debut of Business Class carving out a sweet spot for comfort, service and price between first class and economy.
And while the upper deck lounge proved to be a flash in the passenger experience pan, with the curved sofas benches, swivel chairs and cocktail bar replaced by a score of seats, business class quickly became a must-have for almost every international airline.
Read more: Did Qantas really 'invent' business class?
Over the course of the next twenty years those original recliners evolved into the Marc Newson-designed Skybed.
While not a fully lie-flat business class seat – British Airways claimed that crown in 2000 – the Skybed cocoon was trumpeted as “the longest business class seat in the sky”, as the angled sleeper stretched some two metres (just over six and a half feet).
This was followed by Newson’s fully-flat SkyBed II, created for the Airbus A380 and later fitted across Qantas’ entire Boeing 747 fleet.
The Boeing 747's place in the history books
Another first for the Qantas Boeing 747 included a non-stop flight from London to Sydney – albeit as a PR stunt, carrying minimal passengers and luggage – and until the arrival of the Airbus A380 in 2008, the jumbo was Qantas’ proud flagship for flights to Asia, the USA, Europe and the UK.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact that the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia,” reflects Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.
“It replaced the Boeing 707, which was a huge leap forward in itself but didn’t have the sheer size and scale to lower airfares the way the 747 did. That put international travel within reach of the average Australian and people jumped at the opportunity.”
Joyce said that the Boeing 747 was well ahead of its time and proved extremely capable over its many years.
“Engineers and cabin crew loved working on them and pilots loved flying them. So did passengers. They have carved out a very special place in aviation history and I know they’ll be greatly missed by a lot of people, including me.”