United Airlines took a trip down memory lane Tuesday when it touched down in Honolulu on its final Boeing 747 passenger flight to mark the end of an era.
In a re-creation of its first-ever 747 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu 47 years ago, United repeated the route with about 300 passengers on board - many of them aviation buffs - who wanted to be part of history.
United is retiring the 374-seat aircraft because the four-engine plane has been overtaken by the development of new-generation, two-engine aircraft that provide high capacity and better fuel efficiency.
See also: Man who created the 747 jumbo jet dies
But that doesn't mean there wasn't a soft spot Tuesday for the wide-body aircraft that revolutionised air travel nearly a half-century ago. The 747's ability to carry two to three times more people than existing aircraft at the time made fares more affordable because airlines could generate more revenue due to the extra seats for every mile travelled.
It was the greatest flight I've been on, ever.
Tom Stuker, who lives in New Jersey and has accrued more than 18.7 million frequent-flyer miles on United, said he "wouldn't miss it for the world."
"When they threw a big party for me on my 10 million-mile flight, I thought it was a big deal, but this was like 10 times that," said Stuker, who consults primarily for the auto industry and demonstrates sales and management processes that increase sales. "It was the greatest flight I've been on, ever. United threw the party of a lifetime on this flight, and, at the same time, five hours never ever went so fast."
When the 747-400 pulled up to Gate 33 at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, a 33-metre-long lei made of orange trash bags to replicate ilima was draped over the nose of the aircraft. Departing passengers were greeted with lei and welcomed with Hawaiian music and hula dancers.
There was no fire-hose water lei that sometimes is used to greet special flights, but it wasn't necessary because moments before the plane pulled into the blocks at 3:06 p.m., the sky opened up with a steady rainfall -- a Hawaiian blessing, if you will.
For Christine Ellis of Hermosa Beach, Calif., the flight was special for more than one reason. Her boyfriend, Sean Worsley, proposed on the flight.
"My now-fiance proposed to me, so he planned all of this," said Ellis, showing off her diamond ring. "He was my boyfriend maybe two hours ago; now he's my fiance. His grandparents went on the first flight from L.A. to Honolulu on the 747 in 1970, so now it was our turn to go. It was emotional, it was happy, it was bittersweet but very, very memorable."
Added Worsley, "It was kind of cool when we found out this was going on to try to be a part of it, and it ended up working out."
Shannon Bustamento, who is based in Houston and beginning her 13th year with United, was among 10 flight attendants dressed in retro uniforms that United had borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution for the occasion. All the flight attendants wore orange jumpers, black tights and black turtlenecks.
"It was an amazing experience just to see everyone so excited and thrilled to be there," said Bustamento, who said one flight attendant was chosen from each base. "It's like sad, but it's also a happy time as well. Today was a great day, the celebration, just to see the crew so involved with everything."
Boeing rolled out the first 747-100 from its Washington plant on Sept. 30, 1968, with the first commercial flight on Jan. 21, 1970, going from New York to London on Pan American World Airways.
On June 26, 1970, Continental Airlines became one of the first carriers to put the 747 into U.S. domestic service when it flew from Chicago to Los Angeles and onward to Honolulu.
United followed shortly thereafter on July 23 of that year with its inaugural 747 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu.
Just a little over a week ago, United flew its last international 747 flight from Seoul to San Francisco.
The airline started flights between Australia and the US in 1989 on board its jumbo jets. These were replaced by Boeing 787 Dreamliners on the Melbourne to Los Angeles route in 2014, having already been replaced on Sydney flights by 777s. The 777s were replaced by Dreamliners on Sydney flights last year.
With United retiring the aircraft, Delta Air Lines will be left as the only U.S. carrier that still operates the jet -- but that will be short-lived because Delta plans to pull the 747 out of service next month.
"It's a 40-year airplane that has served us well," said Howard Attarian, senior vice president of flight operations for United. "I personally flew the airplane for 10 years myself, and so in a 30-year career I can tell you it's probably the finest airplane I flew in my airline career. It's time to move forward and look at the future, but at the same time you look back fondly at the memories that the airplane provided us."
Attarian said the 747 had "incredible" economics for its time and age in the early 1970s.
"The cost per available seat mile was significant when you compared it to whatever airplanes were out there flying," he said. "It was probably two to three times larger than the other aircraft. It was a great game-changer for its time."
Stuker, the frequent-flyer traveller, said it was special for him being on the last 747.
"I've been on the 747 over 500 times, mostly to Australia and Asia but at times to Hawaii," he said. "But being on the flights for 500 times or more, it's an old friend that I have to say goodbye to on this flight. It was a tough goodbye, but it was done with so much pageantry and so much class by United."
Lufthansa, British Airways and Korean Air still operate large numbers of the 747. Qantas has begun phasing out five of its older 747s as it replaces them with new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
United's jumbo jet era
June 26, 1970: United Airlines receives its first 747-100.
July 23, 1970: United makes its first 747 commercial flight, with a trip from San Francisco to Honolulu.
April 22, 1985: United announces its plan to acquire Pan Am's Pacific routes, as well as 11 747SP planes. The 747SPs feature a 48-foot-shorter body and fly higher, faster, and farther than standard 747 models.
January 29-30, 1988: Friendship One, a 747SP owned by United Airlines, sets the around-the-world air speed record of 36 hours, 54 minutes, and 15 seconds. This special flight raises $US500,000 for children's charities through the Friendship Foundation. Tickets cost a minimum of $US5000, and special guest passengers included astronaut Neil Armstrong, famed test pilots Bob Hoover and Lieutenant General Laurence C. Craigie, and Moya Lear, the widow of Lear Jet founder Bill Lear.
June, 1989: United Airlines receives their first 747-400 which provides increased range.
September 1996: A 747SP previously flown by United is transformed into NASA's SOFIA, or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which carries a 17-ton, 8-foot-wide infrared telescope mounted behind an enormous sliding door.
NASA's SOFIA. Photo: NASA
January 11, 2017: United announces that it will retire the 747-400 fleet in the last quarter of 2017.
July 28, 2017: United schedules a special domestic flight from Chicago O'Hare to San Francisco to allow more customers to experience the Queen of the Skies.
October, 2017: United employees get a chance to say goodbye to the 747 when the aircraft goes on a farewell tour with stops at each of the carrier's US hubs.
October 29, 2017: United flies its last international 747 flight from Seoul to San Francisco.
November 7, 2017: United celebrates the retirement of the 747 with a special retro event sees the aircraft flying from San Francisco to Honolulu—a nod to its first-ever flight back in 1970.
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