United May Retire Their 747s Early

Well, it looks like another airline may be retiring their 747s early. Per reports, United is contemplating retiring their 747-400s earlier than originally planned. So how much longer will we be seeing United 747s in the skies?

United currently operates 22 Boeing 747-400s on various international routes of Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and San Francisco (SFO). According to a recent memo from Howard Attarian, Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, to United’s pilots, those 22 747s may be retired as early as 2018. This would accelerate United’s timetable to retire their 747s by about 2 years as United’s Chief Financial Officer John Rainey had previously said the airline would likely keep their jumbo jets flying until around 2020.

The 2020 date was important as it is when the majority of United’s 747 fleet will require their heavy-D maintenance check. The heavy-D check on the 747 is by far the most comprehensive and demanding check for an airplane and is needed every 6-7 years. Heavy-D checks require that United essentially disassemble the entire aircraft for inspection and overhaul. If the aircraft will be receiving a new paint job, there will be an inspection of the fuselage skin as well.  A heavy-D check can take up to 50,000 man hours and requires the aircraft to be out of service for 2-3 months. As you can imagine, the heavy-D check is also the most expensive maintenance check with a standard heavy-D check on a 747 costing a few million dollars.

Due to the nature of the heavy-D checks, it makes sense that United is contemplating phasing out their 747s rather than investing millions per aircraft for a product that is already extremely outdated and noncompetitive in the current international premium cabin market. United’s current 747 layout seats 374 passengers in 4 cabins (GlobalFirst, BusinessFirst, Economy Plus and Economy) and features a hard product that is already outdated. One of the glaring factors is that United’s BusinessFirst cabin features 4 across seating in the center seats.

UA 747 2

Given the time requirements of the heavy-D check, airlines usually take that opportunity to upgrade their cabins with new layouts, seats, entertainment systems, carpeting, etc. during this time. United is in a unique position here because there are more fuel efficient long haul aircraft out there like the Boeing 787 and 777-300ER and the Airbus A350. So does United invest millions in redesigning and upgrading a less fuel efficient jumbo jet, or do they retire their 747s and put those millions towards an order of new more fuel efficient long range aircraft?

United already has deliveries of Boeing 787 and 777-300ERs and Airbus A350s scheduled, so it is likely that if United opts to retire their 747 fleet early that they will accelerate deliveries of these aircraft to substitute in. Boeing is eager to increase sales of their 777-300ERs, so Boeing is likely to offer United a good deal on these aircraft to try and sway the airline from purchasing more of rival Airbus’ A350s.

From a business perspective, I certainly understand this move by United. I am not sure how they expect to sell their aircraft without the heavy-D checks done, but it certainly makes more sense to order new, more fuel efficient aircraft that United can outfit with a competitive hard product than to spend millions bringing their 22 747s up to par. From the perspective of a frequent flyer who still swoons whenever he sees a 747, this news saddens me greatly.

Final Thoughts

As someone who has had a love affair with the 747 since he was a kid, it appears the end is nearing quickly for the queen of the skies. United phasing out their 747s means there are only a few airlines in the world flying the 747 commercially. With that said, this move makes good business sense for United. Hopefully retiring the 747 will mean that United will step to the table with a more competitive long range aircraft hard product than what is currently on offer.

Is anyone else sad to see the queen of the skies being retired quicker than they are replaced?

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