Environment First Look

Last United 747 flights: A sign of aviation progress?

The US-based airline announced its accelerated plan to phase out the once iconic jumbo jet.

A United Airlines Boeing 747-400 taxis at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg/AP/File
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United Airlines president Scott Kirby announced through a company-wide memo that United would be retiring its “Queen of the Skies” 747 aircraft by the end of 2017.

“As deeply connected as we all are to this iconic aircraft, the time has come to retire our 747 fleet from scheduled service,” said Mr. Kirby in the memo, “It’s a bittersweet milestone – this jumbo jet with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state-of-the-art in air travel."

The company had previously planned to phase out their fleet of jumbo jets by the end of 2018. However their decision to move that target date forward makes it likely that no US-based airline will be flying that style of aircraft by the end of the year. Delta Air Lines is the only other US carrier that currently operates 747s for passenger travel, and they are already on record saying they will retire their final jumbo in 2017.

The impending departure of the massive airliner comes as part of a widespread push to reduce the environmental impact of air travel.

In July the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that jet engine exhaust endangers public health by contributing to worldwide climate change. Large commercial jets make up 11 percent of all global transportation emissions, and they are expected to increase 50 percent by 2050 in along with the growing demand for air travel.

“Addressing pollution from aircraft is an important element of U.S. efforts to address climate change. Aircraft are the third largest contributor to GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the U.S. transportation sector,” said Janet McCabe, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation in a statement. “EPA has already set effective GHG standards for cars and trucks and any future aircraft engine standards will also provide important climate and public health benefits.” 

According to a study by Purdue University, US passenger airlines crossing the Atlantic alone burn approximately 2 billion gallons of fuel annually while total air travel consumes about 5 million barrels of oil each day. 

And the 747 with its enormous size and weight has an equally enormous degree of consumption, estimated to be about one gallon of fuel per second or five gallons of fuel per mile.

Thus airlines have long begun to switch over to less fuel-intensive aircraft that may not handle the same number of passengers but consume far less fuel and can travel similar distances. For example, wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner burns 20 percent less fuel than other midsize planes.

“Today, there are more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and reliable widebody aircraft that provide an updated inflight experience for our customers traveling on long-haul flights,” Kirby added in his statement. “For these reasons, we’re saying farewell to the Queen of the Skies, which has been part of our fleet since we first flew the aircraft between California and Hawaii in 1970.”

And so while the 747 will remain known for its iconic look and the initial prestige and glamor associated with the aircraft, phasing out the jumbo jet is being seen as a sign of overall progress in the commercial aviation industry. For those who will miss seeing its double-decker silhouette, a retired 747 was last year put on display in the Delta Flight Museum in Hapeville, Ga.