By: Benjamin Bearup / Published: January 13, 2016
Air France says au revoir to the Queen of the Skies as the carrier retires its final Boeing 747-400 this week. After more than four and a half decades of flying with Air France, the Boeing 747 flew out of Air France’s fleet and into retirement on January 11th as flight 439 touched down at Paris Charles de Gaulle from Mexico City.
While officially retired from revenue service, Air France’s last 747 will operate two remembrance flights to honor the historic aircraft above the skies of France and several Paris landmarks on Thursday, January 14th. On the flights, passengers will be served complementary Business Class lunches and Champagne while enjoying commentary about France, its heritage, its history, and its legendary landmarks including Mont Blanc, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Mont St. Michel. The honor flights will take off from Paris Charles de Gaulle at 9am and 11:30am with the unique flight numbers of AF744 and AF747. Upon completing the honor flights, guests will be invited to share a drink as a final tribute at the foot of the aircraft.
While the honor flights are restricted to executives, Air France employees, and respected customers, members of the general public will also be given the opportunity to visit the Queen of the Skies before she heads to the desert. Partnering with the Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget, Air France is inviting members of the public to reserve a tour of the 747 on January 16th and 17th by reserving an appointment. The free tour will allow visitors to tour the ramp with 747 mechanics, vie business and economy class, and visit the upper deck and cockpit with an Air France pilot.
The Boeing 747 entered service with Air France on June 3rd, 1970 with a flight from Paris to New York. In the 747’s cabin, Air France created a culture of service innovation. The introduction of a chief purser enabled the coordination of service and attention paid to customers in an aircraft which could carry up to 500 passengers. Inflight cuisine was of great importance, with menus designed by great French chefs: Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenôtre and Pierre Troisgros, who forged exclusive partnerships with Air France. And the cabin interior was designed by Pierre Gautier-Delaye, who paid particular attention to the comfort of the seat cushions and seatbacks.
Within a few short years the 747 became the flagship of the Air France fleet, primarily operating long haul flights to North America and Asia. Air France took delivery of its first 747-100 in 1970 and received its first 747-200F in 1974. The carrier would later add the 747-200B in 1977, the 747-300 and 747-400 in 1991, and two variations of the 747-400F in 2002 and 2009. In total, Air France operated 52 747 aircraft across seven variants, flying every type of 747 except the 747SP and the 747-8.
Facing rising fuel prices and sluggish revenues, Air France began to remove the 747-400 from the fleet in 2012. The 747s were steadily replaced with a mix of Boeing 777-300ERs and Airbus A380-800s. The last 747F already left the Air France Cargo fleet in 2014, while the crews of last five 747-400s in service have been redeployed on the Boeing 777 or the Airbus A320. And since no Air France 747-400s will be available for long run display, the 747-100 on display at the Air & Space Museum at Le Bourget will be the sole witness of the Golden Jumbo era at the French carrier.
The steady sunset of the 747-400
Air France joins Air Canada, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Singapore Airlines in retiring the 747-400 in recent years. Up until 2014, high fuel prices drove many carriers to retire the fuel inefficient 747-400, which has now largely been replaced largely by the 777-300ER.
Despite Air France’s retirement of the 747, Europe remains home to several of the largest 747 operators in the world. With 41 aircraft operating high capacity routes out of London Heathrow, British Airways appears to be in no hurry to retire its remaining 747 fleet. In fact, in September 2015 British Airways announced it will retrofit 18 747-400’s with new interiors and update in-flight entertainment options. Other European operators of the 747 include KLM with 24, CargoLux with 22, Virgin Atlantic with 10, and Lufthansa with 32.
While airlines like British Airways, Lufthansa, Air China, and others will continue the legacy of the 747, others will soon be retiring their fleets. In North America, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines both plan to retire their 747 fleets shortly. Delta began the retirement process last year, ordering 25 A350-900s as a replacement, and will say goodbye to its final 747 in 2017. United Airlines, with a fleet of 22 747’s, has begun the slow process of retiring its 747s as well. The airline will retire 2-3 747 aircraft annually until the A350-1000 enters the fleet in 2018.
Upon arrival in Paris on the 11th, the final 747 flight taxied in front of Air France Headquarters where hundreds of employees waved farewell. A final water salute was given as the jumbo made one final turn in front of emotional employees. As the final chapter of the Air France 747 comes to a close, we are one step closer to seeing the end of the 747-400 in passenger service altogether.
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