Covid-19 not only seems to wipe out a generation of vulnerable and elderly men and women, but as a consequence of the effect it has on aviation also the vulnerable and elderly aircraft types.
We witnessed this on March 29, when two airlines early-retired their last Boeing 747s. Qantas operated VH-QEE for the last time as it arrived in Sydney from Santiago de Chile.
Phasing out the last five 747s in the fleet and replacing the quads with twin-engined Boeing 787-9s was always the plan, but Covid-19 speeded this up. Qantas is winding down international operations by some 90 percent and parks its long-haul fleet for the coming weeks. Nobody knows what happens after that, but all indications are that a return to normal will be progressive and careful. In these circumstances, efficient and thus cheaper to operate aircraft are preferred over the old generation. Hence the retirement of the Jumbo, which has served Qantas so well since the first -200 was delivered in October 1971. The airline has a historical fleet of 60 747s which include all major variants: the -100, -200, -300, -400, plus the Special Performance.
It’s a similar story at KLM. The 747 was supposed to have a well-deserved farewell party after her last flight in May 2021. Instead, she made an anonymous landing in Amsterdam from Mexico City on March 29.
PH-BFT’s arrival was streamed live on the internet, hoping to discourage spotters to gather with too many at Schiphol’s perimeter fence. Many disobeyed the rules to stay home and keep distance by going to the airport after all and were ‘treated’ by the police.
Until her last week in the fleet, KLM operated seven 747-400s. During the heydays, this was 15, of which 12 were -400Ms or Combi’s with a separate cargo door. Some thought it unwise to retire these aircraft known for their flexibility, a great thing to have when passenger load factors are down and demand for cargo is on the increase. CEO Pieter Elbers didn’t want to have anything of that, as early-retiring of the fleet will save KLM some EUR 74 million in direct costs.
KLM was one of the early adopters of the 747 with the first -200 joining in January 1971. It flew the -200, -300, and -400, while reconfiguring some -200s into the -200SUD with Stretched Upper Deck.
In the ‘70s, seeing a 747 on what is now a short-haul service was not unusual. It was on such a service to the Canary Islands that tragedy struck on March 27, 1977, when PH-BUF on an unauthorized take-off hit a Pan Am-sister on the runway in Tenerife, killing 583 occupants.
The 747 continues with KLM as a full freighter, three in blue and one in the red and white colors of subsidiary Martinair.
For now, Lufthansa (32) and British Airways (31) will remain the biggest 747-400 operators while Singapore has seven. They are or will be parked in the coming weeks, hoping the good times will return. But nothing is certain, except that aging airliners are in a dangerous position right now. And it’s not just 747s, as American and Delta will retire their 767s ahead of schedule as well as 757s and MD-88/-90s.
Update April 9: KLM announced it would resume 747-operations for six to eight weeks but only for cargo. Two Combi’s will join the 787 and 777 on a special air bridge between Amsterdam and Beijing and Shanghai to ferry (large) medical equipment and machines produced by Philips.