A raucous retirement party for the Boeing 747-400 'Queen of the Skies'

United's 747-400 Aircraft at San Francisco International Airport (Photo: United Airlines, Inc.)

On Friday, hundreds of aviation enthusiasts flocked to Chicago's O'Hare airport to board what was no ordinary United flight to San Francisco. This was the final domestic ride for United’s Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet program, as the airline plans to phase these aircraft out in the fall, and was quite the raucous retirement party for the “Queen of the Skies.”

Both United and Delta are the last two U.S. air carriers to have 747s active and will phase them out this fall; leaving just some international carriers like Lufthansa, Korean Air, and cargo carriers to operate them. Until their retirement, both airlines fly the aircraft mostly on Asian and European routes. After the respective 747 retirements, United will replace most routes with Boeing’s 777-300; and for Delta, the newer Airbus A350.

Jumbo aircraft aren’t exactly the gold standard in aviation like they once were. A long trip with as many people as possible (sometimes just once a day) made sense, but now, frequency is the game. Boeing’s 787 and Airbus’ A350 are rapidly being adapted by airlines domestically and internationally. While they don’t carry nearly as many folks as a 747 or Airbus' A380, airlines can more affordably operate them (sometimes more than once a day) to offer more schedule choices to travelers. The Airbus A380 jumbo jet is not operated by any U.S. carrier, but is widely used by Emirates in and out of Dubai, British Airways to and from London, and Qantas to and from Australia, for example.

For United flight 2704 on July 28th, nearly every passenger was on this flight with the intent to experience the 747-400 one more time, as it was not a regularly scheduled flight upgraded to a 747-400 versus a 737, 757 or A320 (which makes up most of United’s domestic workforce).

The flight was only added to United’s schedule earlier this week (according to The Points Guy). Once word got out in aviation circles on social media, Business Class, First were fast to be sold out both by cash purchases but mostly, United miles. In my case, I was able to sit in the upper deck, seat 14A, for just 25,000 “Business Saver” miles, and an additional $80 or so in fees. And I only got so lucky by moving very fast after seeing the announcement on social media, thanks to aviation journalist Chris McGinnis.

The flight was also filled with United employees from across the nation, one who told me the standby list for the flight was more than 200 people, who were all granted complimentary seats. The captain of the aircraft was David Smith, who has flown 747-400’s for years (as did his father) and told ABC Chicago (WLS) that "It’s hard for anyone to tell you that it’s not their favorite. She is a gentle giant, truly."

During the flight, aviation enthusiasts weren’t forced to sit still in their seat, or barred from first/business class because of their coach seating instead, guests were encouraged to roam around the plane and check out not just the upper deck, but the unique “nose” section where first class guests were seated. The upper deck was standing room at times, letting folks come up and sit in the upper deck to get a taste of what it might be like to fly on this plane for longer than four hours. And despite this particular aircraft’s age of 18.1 years, United has kept the aircraft cabin in great condition.

Upon landing in San Francisco, joy turned to a little bit of sadness in that this was it for the Queen of the Skies domestically, in fact, when the captain apologized over the PA for the flight’s minor 14 minute departure delay, no one complained and in fact, hoped the plane could be delayed a bit longer in landing. My seatmates remarked that there will never be another flight like this and that it truly was the end of an era in aviation.

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