The “Queen of the Skies” got a royal send-off.
Flight 747 (subtle, we know) was the airline's farewell service to the signature jumbo jet – the aircraft that ushered in the modern age of commercial aviation when it went into service in 1970. To send the 747 off in style, United recreated the first flight — on July 23, 1970 — from San Francisco to Honolulu.
While United was not the first airline to fly with the plane (that honor goes to Pan Am), they are one of the last in the U.S. The once-popular aircraft has faded out of favor due to high operating costs, and for that reason United even phased out its 747 fleet about a year earlier than expected.
But on Tuesday, all that was momentarily forgotten as the “Queen of the Skies” took to them once again. The jumbo jet – the last in service of the nine United still had in its fleet – took off from San Francisco's SFO at 11:50 a.m. local time.
That was about 50 minutes behind schedule, due to a maintenance issue, according to those on board.
“The iconic 747 is a remarkably special aircraft that signaled a new era of air travel and was equally recognizable and beloved by our customers and crew alike,” said Oscar Munoz, CEO of United, in a statement. “While today is bittersweet, we'll continue to honor the Queen of the Skies’ game-changing legacy of connecting people and uniting the world with our next-generation of long-haul aircraft.”
Aboard the flight, about 300 passengers — including customers, United employees, and guests (read: aviation enthusiasts) — celebrated the bittersweet retirement with Mai Tais and 1970s-themed entertainment, refreshments and snacks.
The flight attendants wore retro uniforms, and passengers even got retro boarding passes and some commemorative swag.
The former Queen of the Skies has fallen out of favor with airlines with the rise of the mid-sized Boeing 737 (and the competitive Airbus 320 and 321 series) and jumbo-sized Boeing 787 Dreamliner (and the Airbus 380). The former aircraft operate more cost effectively and have evolved technologically to travel farther distances, and the latter offer state-of-the-art comfort and fuel efficiency.
Despite that, the 747 maintains a devoted fan base among the aviation crowd. The nostalgia factor is big for the era when air travel became for more than the few, and instead for the many.
Real fans can bid on parts from United's 747 fleet in an online auction of everything from an airspeed indicator to a tail number cut off a plane to a row of seats. (MileagePlus membership is required to bid.)
Anyone who still wants to take to the skies in a 747, however, will now need to book a flight on the few airlines around the world still using the model.
And who knows, the 747 could some day make a comeback. But for now, we fare this Queen well.