A British Airways Boeing 747-400 flies into Heathrow Airport in west London. File photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville
A British Airways Boeing 747-400 flies into Heathrow Airport in west London. File photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Hong Kong — British Airways, the world’s biggest operator of Boeing 747-400s, is retiring its entire fleet of the jumbo jets with immediate effect because of the damage the coronavirus has done to air travel.

“It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic,” the airline, a unit of IAG, said in a statement.

The carrier’s 31 Boeing 747-400 aeroplanes, which could seat 345 passengers in four classes, flew to destinations including Beijing, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town and Lagos, until Covid-19 struck and forced the airline to park them. British Airways had planned to finish phasing out the aircraft in 2024.

The pandemic has devastated the aviation industry, with governments around the world imposing unprecedented travel restrictions to try to stop its spread. Airlines have grounded much or all of their fleets as they recalibrate to the slump in demand. They’re also assessing which aircraft will best suit their needs when the market recovers to pre-virus levels, something that’s not widely expected until at least 2023.

Qantas Airways is among other carriers to recently retire the 747, offering farewell “joy flights” above Australian cities earlier this week. A handful continue to operate the jumbo for passenger services, including Air China and Korean Air Lines.

“While the aircraft will always have a special place in our heart, as we head into the future we will be operating more flights on modern, fuel-efficient aircraft such as our new A350s and 787s, to help us achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” British Airways said.

Boeing will stop making the 747 soon anyway, with the last likely to roll out of a Seattle-area factory in about two years, people familiar with the matter have said. Airbus is also moving on from its giant A380 double-decker jet, as airline customers turn in favour of twin-engine aircraft for long-range flights.

British Airways has come under fire for its plans to eliminate 12,000 jobs, about 30% of its workforce, while also tapping a state furlough initiative aimed at protecting employment. In another sign of its precarious financial position, the airline is planning to sell paintings and prints from its corporate art collection.

IAG has been working with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to review its strategy and liquidity needs, people familiar with the matter said last month. Its other units include Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling.

British Airways took delivery of its first 747-400 in 1989 and its last 10 years later.

As of Tuesday, there were 502 Boeing 747s in service, in storage or on order globally, according to Cirium. Of those, 162 are for passenger services and the rest are cargo planes, the air-travel data and analytics company said. Just 30 of those are in service and 132 are in storage.

The 747 fleet peaked in July 1998, with 986 of them actively flown, Cirium said.


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