Air France Retires Its Last 747 After 40 Years

FRANCE-AVIATION-AIR FRANCE-PLANE

An Air France Boeing 747.

Photographer: Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images
  • `Queen of Skies' bows out with three-hour flight around France
  • Dutch carrier's younger aircraft could survive until 2020

Air France marked the exit of the last of 68 Boeing Co. 747s that have graced its fleet over 40 years with a valedictory tour spanning Normandy to Mont Blanc and the Mediterranean -- while saying that the aviation icon could survive until 2020 at Dutch arm KLM.

Replaced at the French carrier by smaller Boeing 777s and a handful of Airbus Group SE A380s, the jet still numbers more than 20 examples at KLM, where the priority has been to retire Boeing MD-11s, Alexandre De Juniac, president of parent Air France-KLM Group, said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s just a question of age,” De Juniac said from his seat in the distinctive upper deck of the 747-400, which was allocated the commemorative flight number AF744 and carried a dozen former Air France jumbo-jet pilots among the 432 people aboard. “The KLM fleet is younger than Air France’s.”

Not that many KLM clients are likely to complain about a model that’s exiting global fleets because of the inefficiency of its four engines rather than any lack of refinement. When Air France began selling tickets for its final flights with the 747 concerns were raised about likely demand; instead it was deluged with applications from 30,000 people eager to bid au revoir in person to a model dubbed the Queen of the Skies on its debut in 1970.

New York, Beijing

KLM currently has 22 747s, seven of them all-passenger variants and another 15 so-called combis, which have a larger freight capacity, of which two will be phased out in coming weeks. The business cabins of the jetliners, which serve destinations including New York, Hong Kong and Beijing, as well as Dutch holiday spots such as Curacao, were refurbished in 2013.

“This plane has a personality like no other,” De Juniac said. “Everybody recognizes it by its hump and it has no equal in terms of design.”

The fleets of Air France and KLM have little commonality despite their merger in 2004, with the Dutch carrier generally favoring Boeing and the French carrier leaning toward Airbus. The contrast is starkest in the short-haul market, with KLM deploying the U.S. planemaker’s 737 narrow-body and its sister-unit loyal to the A320 series.

While the 747 first appeared in Paris on services operated by Pan American Airways in 1970, the plane made its debut with Air France in 1974, and has carried 250 million passengers in its four decades with the company.

The last flight, which carried 380 fare-paying passengers, departed Paris before performing a clockwise circuit of France taking in Lyon, Geneva, Marseille, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Deauville, on the English Channel, before returning to the capital.

Despite its retirement at Air France and major operators including Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Japan Airlines Co. over the past few years, and a backlog of just 20 examples of the slow-selling 747-8 stretch model that replaced the -400, the jumbo is still some way from being put out to grass.

British Airways, which now has the biggest 747 fleet, is revamping 18 of its planes to extend their lifespans and eke out capacity from scarce operating slots at its London Heathrow hub at a time when low fuel prices make retaining older jets an option. About half its remaining 42 747s date from the late 1990s.

Air France, KLM and the Martinair cargo unit all also have 747 freighters.