Next time you're gazing out across the tarmac at Heathrow Airport, you're going to see a much different view – namely, a dearth of the 31 747 jumbo jets that have been a part of British Airways' fleet since July of 1989. Nicknamed the "Queen of the Skies," these classic Boeing planes are the latest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, forced into retirement four years early as the airline industry struggles to survive months of stay-at-home orders and demand for international travel that's slowed to a trickle. 

“This is not how we wanted or expected to have to say goodbye to our incredible fleet of 747 aircraft. It is a heart-breaking decision to have to make," said British Airways’ Chairman and CEO Alex Cruz in a statement. "So many people, including many thousands of our colleagues past and present, have spent countless hours on and with these wonderful planes – they have been at the centre of so many memories, including my very first long-haul flight. They will always hold a special place in our hearts at British Airways."

The 747s were due to leave service in 2024, replaced by newer aircraft models that operate with greater fuel efficiency. But British Airways has decided instead to immediately shutter its jumbo jets, which are especially costly to run while mostly empty of passengers, and carry on flying with its fleet of six A350s and 32 787s. Not only are those thirty eight planes toward the beginning of their lifespans, they're 25% more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. 

British Airways centenary fleet
British Airways cabin crew stand in front of four planes from British Airways' centenary fleet, including a Boeing 747 in British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) livery © Steve Parsons - PA Images / Getty Images

British Airways isn't the only airline to make the difficult decisions about its 747s. According to Credit Suisse, a whopping 91% of 747s are currently grounded since they are so costly to fuel and maintain – especially when so few travelers are flying. Lufthansa has been quietly pulling its older 747s off runways since February, five years ahead of the airline's intended replacement date  in an early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the final flight of a 747 operated by KLM arrived in Schiphol from Mexico City on March 29, over a year ahead of schedule. And halfway around the world, Qantas Airways out of Australia grounded its jumbo jets in June, when previously they'd been slated to leave service at the end of the year.

When Boeing debuted the 747 in 1969, it was a logistical marvel that ushered in a new era of travel, one in which long-haul flights were possible, and packed with more travelers than ever headed for far-flung locals on direct routes. Synonymous with luxury thanks to its upper deck bar and lounge space, not to mention the prestigious first class seats in the nose, the iconic 747 was the darling of the industry for decades – one on which midcentury airlines like Pan Am hung their hats.

But the very qualities that made the 747s iconic eventually spelled its demise. The powerful quad-engine plane is a gas guzzling muscle car compared to the 737 MAX and A320 models that are now more in demand. Boeing itself has been planning to halt production of 747s in 2023, and many of the airlines that had scheduled their 747's retirements cited environmental concerns and fuel costs as a factor, even as oil prices have plunged in recent months.

UK Eases Some Restrictions In Eighth Week Of Coronavirus Lockdown
A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 aircraft partially dismantled at St. Athan airport in Cardiff, one of many retired early by a variety of airlines during the pandemic © Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

“We have committed to making our fleet more environmentally friendly as we look to reduce the size of our business to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation," said Cruz of British Airways' decision. 

That business size reduction amounts to the slashing of 12,000 jobs, or about 30% of the British Airways workforce. Its parent group, IAG, has been seeking government loans from Spain to bolster its books. Other European airlines like Air France have attempted to cut similar deals – but those loans often come with strings attached that mandate stricter carbon emissions restrictions, further diminishing the usefulness of planes like the 747. 

The last Queens of the Sky on British Airways' balance sheet will make their final flights to airplane graveyards like those in Gloucester, Châteauroux, or Teruel. There they are stripped of their interior finishings and any useful parts that can be used to maintain other 747s still in service – a handful of Asian airlines continue to operate their jumbo jets. But it's the end of an era at Heathrow for a once-beloved aircraft.

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