Boeing 747: Bowing out from British Airways the same way as it began

Plane Talk: Observations on (and from) BA’s jumbo jets

Destination unknown: a British Airways 747
Destination unknown: a British Airways 747

Should you be flying into Heathrow airport any time soon, try to get a (socially distanced) seat on the left-hand side. Assuming you land towards the west, which is the usual approach, just before touchdown on your left you may see three Boeing 747s in the colours of British Airways.

They are standing around uselessly at BA’s main base, after the carrier announced it will not be flying the jumbo again, due to the coronavirus pandemic cutting demand for air travel.

That sight completes the arc of the aircraft’s career in a mirror image of how it began.

British Airways’s long-haul predecessor, BOAC, had Boeing 747s standing around uselessly for almost a year before they took to the sky. It was one of the first airlines to take delivery of the 747, in May 1970. But the plane did not fly until the following April because of a dispute with the British Airline Pilots’ Association over pilots’ renumeration.

The issue wasn’t quite as simple as “we’re flying more than twice as many passengers and much more cargo than before – we need twice the money”, but it wasn’t far off. Meanwhile, in those days of state ownership, the taxpayer picked up the bill for the failure to agree.

Once the plane was airborne, it flew some remarkable routes. None of the simple there-and-back itineraries that the Boeing 747-400 operated for most of its career; the -100 version stopped frequently to pick up, drop off and refuel. Johannesburg was a minimum of one stop (at Nairobi), with sometimes Frankfurt added. But for some surreal routings, you have to look at the Australia services.

Can you imagine a route to Sydney stopping in Tel Aviv or Tehran? Well, in 1972 one of BA’s kangaroo routes did just that – yes, with a non-stop jumbo hop between the Israeli and Iranian cities.

My best 747 flight was on another weird-ish route, in the summer of 1988 flying from Heathrow to Anchorage, Alaska, with British Airways. At the time, limits on range and Soviet restrictions meant that the only way to reach Japan was via the west. Oddly, because the refuelling stop was a US city, you could get bargain standby flights for around £100 one way.

It was the poor person’s Concorde, since the time zones meant you arrived, local time, earlier than you had left London.

At the time, BA kitted out the jumbo’s “bubble” with a couple of dozen economy seats, which gave it a private jet feel for the £100 price of a standby ticket. I recall, though, feeling miffed about having to descend to the main deck for a smoke. Cigarettes were banned a few years later.

Many readers have got in touch with their reminiscences of the British Airways jumbo – with Mia Hughes looking back a very short time.

She describes herself as “a complete airline seat nerd”, and says: “Seat 64K ticked all the boxes. Up in the bubble, 64K was one of only two window seats which didn’t involve climbing over the aisle passengers’ legs to get out (a real issue with BA’s ‘yin-yang’ seats).

“I travelled solo a lot in this seat when it was used for the Heathrow-Las Vegas route. Very private once the divider screen went up. Great views of engine. Faces backwards. Only time I could sleep on a flight!”

Yet Jamie Bowden, who as an executive at British Airways seems to have lived half his life in the 747, cites the approach to South Africa’s loveliest city at dawn: “The African sunrise is one of the most beautiful sights anyway.

“Just after breakfast the BA jumbo hugs the coast of the Western Cape before approaching Cape Town.

“Whichever runway the aircraft lands on, the approach will give at least one lucky half of the plane a beautiful view of Table Mountain in the early morning sun.”

Fortunately, that is still an experience open to anyone. Other aircraft are available, and are less damaging to the planet. The 747 helped change the world, but it is time for the reign of the “Queen of the Skies” to end. Long live the, er, Airbus A350.

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