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Delta, the world's second largest airline, sent its final 747 to an Arizona "boneyard" this week, marking another chapter in the slow death of the jumbo jet.
Last month United, Delta's US rival, waved goodbye to its final 747 with a farewell flight from San Francisco to Honolulu (recreating the route of its first 747 service in 1970). Not one US carrier now flies the iconic Boeing aircraft, which – after almost 50 years of tireless service – is gradually disappearing from our skies.
Even it's biggest customer, British Airways, is phasing it out of its fleet. It currently has 36 jumbo jets, according to the website Airfleets.net, but a further 34 have already been placed in storage and it has said the model will be gone from its hangers by 2024.
Demand for the 747, which has been tweaked and upgraded many times since its first flight in 1969, has dried up. No new orders were received last year and it is expected that Boeing will be forced to call time on the jumbo jet before long.
Since 1969 Boeing has produced more than 1500 jumbo jets. But around two-thirds of these have now been scrapped, written off, or placed in storage at one of the world's aircraft graveyards.
That leaves 512 still "active", according to Airfleets.net.
Besides BA, the biggest users of the 747 include a clutch of venerable carriers. KLM, the world's oldest airline, has 17, but that number is falling fast. Last month on the final flight of one of its jumbos, registration PH-BFR, which was greeted on the runway by a herd of deer.
Lufthansa, founded in 1953, has 32, Cathay Pacific, which dates back to 1946, has 20, and Qantas, formed in 1920, has 9.
Newer airlines still operating the 747 include Virgin Atlantic (8), Singapore Airlines (7) and Qatar Airways (2).
Beyond that it's largely the preserve of cargo airlines and obscure carriers from far-flung corners of the globe. Of the former, Cargolux, from Luxembourg, has 23, Atlas Air, UPS, Kalitta Air and Polar Air Cargo, all based in the US, have 30, 18, 17 and 13, respectively. Air Bridge Cargo, headquartered in Moscow, has 15.
Among the latter are Mahan Air, Caspian Airlines and Saha Airlines, all from Iran, Suparna Airlines, from China, and Terra Avia, from Moldova.
They are also used by a couple of militaries, namely the US Air Force and the Iran Air Force, while they also seem to be popular with Middle Eastern rulers – Bahrain Royal Flight has three, the State of Kuwait has one, and one is owned by the estate of Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Crown Prince who died in 2011.
Where's the first 747?
The first 747 flight took place in February 1969, with test pilots Jack Waddell and Brien Wygle at the controls, and ushered in a new era of air travel when it took off – it was twice the size of its nearest competitor. The aircraft, RA001, can be seen at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
The first passenger flight
Pan Am introduced the paying public to the jumbo jet on January 22, 1970. But that first flight, from New York to Heathrow, wasn't a roaring success.
"The widebody's 352 passengers and 20 crew members sat on the runway for two hours, waiting to take off from Kennedy Airport, before Captain Robert Weeks noticed a malfunction in the #4 engine and decided to head back to the gate," explains Tony Reichhardt, writing for Air Space Magazine.
"The passengers debarked (a group of protesters, who had loudly complained about the 747′s noise and pollution, taunted them with "We told you so!") and were treated to dinner in the terminal while Pan Am rustled up a replacement jet. Twenty of the original passengers bailed out right there, choosing to miss out on the historic first flight.
"The stand-in 747, hastily christened "Young America" (the name of the original airplane) finally took off at 1:52 am, 27 minutes after it was supposed to have landed in London."
The oldest 747 still in service
The Iran Air Force possesses an active 48-year-old 747. It began life with TWA before being converted by Boeing in 1975 and delivered to its new owner a year later.
The oldest 747 still flying ordinary punters is EP-SHB, owned by Iran's Saha Airlines. Caspian Airlines, its local rival, has a 39-year-old jumbo still in service.
The majority of BA's active jumbos are far newer. The oldest, G-BNLK, was delivered in 1990; the newest, G-BYGG, in 1999.
Where do unwanted 747s go?
With airlines keen to keep their fleets as modern and fuel efficient as possible, and air forces eager to take advantage of new technology, the shelf life of a plane is shorter than you'd think. Where do they go when they are retired? The chances are they will end up at one of the world's vast aircraft graveyards.
There are dozens of facilities around the world where retired planes are kept in storage or to have their parts removed and reused or sold. The first such graveyards, or "boneyards" in US parlance, were established after the Second World War, when militaries found themselves with huge aircraft surpluses.
The largest is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona, where almost 5000 have been left to gather dust. Aircraft graveyards can also be found beyond US shores, in Alice Springs Airport, Northern Territory, Australia; Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Teruel Airport in Aragon, Spain; and Tarbes–Lourdes–Pyrénées Airport in France.
Why were so many 747s written off?
More often than not because they crashed. More than 50 aircraft, or about one in 30 of all produced, were damaged beyond repair. They include N736PA, flown by Pan Am, and PH-BUF, flown by KLM. The two jumbos colliding on the runway at Tenerife Airport in 1977 in what was the deadliest air disaster of all time (583 people were killed). Follow this link to read a harrowing account of the accident.
Jumbo jet crashes over the years have seen 3,722 perish – the most recent being Turkish Airlines Flight 6491, a cargo service that crashed in January 2017 killing four on board and 35 on the ground. Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie in 1988, was a 747.
See also: Are older planes less reliable to fly?
Other notable 747s
Baltia, dubbed the world's worst airline because it was founded 28 years ago but has never flown a paying passenger, has one (in storage).
Virgin Galactic has one in storage, too – presumably to move rocket parts as and when required.
NASA has a jumbo in active service, which it bought from United Airlines in 1986 (Pan Am owned it before that).
And so too does the Las Vegas Sands casino and hotel company – presumably to fly those high rollers in from around the world. The firm also owns a Lockheed L-1011, a Boeing 767, and a clutch of Boeing Business Jets and Gulfstream aircraft. It is thought they all have gambling tables on board.
The Telegraph, London