The United Airlines Boeing 747: A Piece of American Aviation History

United Airlines has owned at least one 747 for the last 47 years. This streak will end by the end of the year. (Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub)

When you think of an airplane, you think of the Boeing 747. When you think of an airline, United is one of the first you think of.

United received its’ first 747’s 46 years ago in August 1970, where they were initially operated on longer, intra-U.S. flights. Some of these routes included San Francisco-New York, Los Angeles-New York, and many flights from L.A. and San Francisco to the likes of Washington D.C, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and Charlotte. These flights were operated by the 747-200, the third of six primary 747 variants produced.

The 747-200 was responsible for United’s massive expansion into the Asia-Pacific region, a region that was previously thought impossible to reach from the United States. (Photo: Burmarrad / planespotters.net)

In 1983, upon lifting of the Transpacific Route Case, which denied United expansion internationally, UA opened up flights between Seattle and Portland to Tokyo-Narita Airport in Japan. The purchase of Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 747SP and Lockheed L-1011-500’s in 1985 for $750 million was the turning point of 747 transpacific travel, in which the airline had 13 Pacific destinations by the conclusion of 1986. These destinations included Bangkok, Thailand; Brisbane, Australia; Cairns, Australia; Hiroshima, Japan; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Hong Kong, Naha, Japan; Niigata, Japan; Okayama, Japan; Guam, and many others. This massive expansion was nothing short of revolutionary, and opened the doors to exponential Asian expansion by other American and Asian airlines.

The Boeing 747SP allowed United to fly places ever further than before, shrinking the Earth to as small as it had ever been. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The performance of the Boeing 747 was also challenged by the American giant United, when a Boeing 747SP-21 operated the first two-stop round-the-world flight in 1988. The feat was coined “Friendship One,” mostly due to the profit from the flight being 100% donated to the Friendship Foundation, a San Francisco-based charity who donates millions of dollars to terminally-ill children. Among the passengers onboard, the most notable were Neil Armstrong and Moya, Bill Lear’s widow. The record-setting flight covered 23,125 miles over the course of 36 hours, 54 minutes, and 55 seconds. The flight departed Seattle/Tacoma International Airport and stopped in Athens, Greece and Taipei, Taiwan, before returning to Seattle the next day.

Over the next several years, United expanded into Europe, Asia, and Oceania, using the capabilities of the 747-200, 747SP, and 747-400. Several destinations were added to their network utilizing the aircraft, such as Seattle-Osaka, Los Angeles-Sydney-Melbourne, Denver-Honolulu, and Tokyo-Singapore.

On December 9th, 2004, the airline wrote another entry into the history books, operating flight UA869, the first scheduled flight by a U.S. carrier between the United States and Vietnam since the Vietnam War, which took the lives of over 50,000 American troops. The flight flew San Francisco-Ho Chi Minh City with a stopover in Hong Kong, and was operated by the airlines’ 747-400 aircraft.

On June 4th, 2008, United announced a new plan to cut costs among it’s network by dropping the “Ted” brand and building a new, modern fleet of state-of-the-art Boeing 737 and 777 aircraft. Unfortunately, this new strategy left the 747 the odd aircraft out, and the retirement of the once-63 example strong fleet began.

In January of this year, United prompted the phase-out of its Boeing 747-400 aircraft, where they were announced to be completely retired by 4Q 2017 compared to the previously-announced 2018 retirement plan.

United president Scott Kirby said in a statement, “As deeply connected as we all are to this iconic aircraft, the time has come to retire our 747 fleet from scheduled service. Last March, we announced that this would occur by the end of 2018; now we plan to operate our last 747 flight in the fourth quarter of this year.”

The reason for the expedited retirement has been cited as “increased operational costs,” “routing limitations,” and “extra maintenance attention.” The 747 burns as much as 20% more fuel per seat than the Boeing 777-300ER, the 747’s replacement which have commenced service at United this year. The airline’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft also will be covering some of the slack lost by the 747, as well as open up the opportunities to fly substantially further for much less cost. The efficiency of the 787 can be proven by the fact that United announced last week that it plans on opening up a new flight between Los Angeles and Singapore nonstop, the longest flight the airline has ever operated. You can read about that here.

As of June 10th, United has 16 747’s remaining in service, and they are currently operating flights exclusively from San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The remaining destinations are flights between SFO and Tokyo-Narita, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai-Pudong, London-Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Taipei.

When spotting at SFO two months ago, I was able to snag some photos of a whole wealth of United 747’s, which I was overjoyed to do after learning about the retirement date changes. Here are some of my shots:

Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub
Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub
Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub
Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub

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