Qantas Boeing 747 jumbo jet retirement: Coronavirus groundings may hasten the end for iconic plane

Qantas' final international flight for the foreseeable future touched down on Sunday when QF28 from Santiago, Chile, landed in Sydney.

Qantas has now grounded international flights for the foreseeable future due to the global coronavirus outbreak.

Qantas operated a Boeing 747 for the Santiago flight and, with the airline's jumbo jets due to retire by the end of this year, speculation has been rife that this has quietly marked the end of the aircraft's service.

Not necessarily so, according to Qantas. The airline indicated the jumbo jets may still be put back into service if needed for government rescue flights (like the one that flew into Wuhan to evacuate Australians in early February) and might still return to regular service depending on how long the coronavirus crisis lasts. Qantas still has five 747s in its fleet.

Given the love among many passengers for the iconic jumbo jet, it would be highly surprising if Qantas decided to let the planes fade into retirement unheralded.

The jumbo jet has been in the Qantas fleet in various forms since 1971. The hump-backed jet was the largest commercial aircraft to fly until the launch of the Airbus A380 in October 2007.

There has also been speculation that Dutch airline KLM last 747 has made its final flight, departing from Mexico on Saturday night bound for Amsterdam. KLM has stated that, due to the coronavirus and related travel restrictions, the airline would be grounding its largest planes and reducing flights by 90 per cent.

Other airlines have made much fanfare of the retirement of their 747s. In November 2017, United Airlines' last jumbo jet made its final commercial flight by recreating the aircraft's first route, flying from San Francisco to Hawaii. There were about 300 passengers on board, many of them aviation buffs who wanted to be part of history.

A month later, a Delta Air Lines 747 made the final jumbo jet flight for an American carrier, flying from Seoul to Detroit. In a twist of fate, the airline almost immediately pulled the plane out of retirement to complete the flight, due to "operational need" (no doubt disappointing passengers who had booked the plane's previous flight thinking it would be the last).

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Boeing rolled out the first 747 on September 30, 1968, with the first commercial flight on January 21, 1970, going from New York to London on Pan American World Airways.

The giant aircraft ushered in a new era of long-haul travel, flying further and faster than most of its predecessors. It also brought new levels of luxury to the sky, with premium passengers enjoying a bar and lounge on the upper deck with some carriers. It was soon nicknamed the "Queen of the Skies"

The two largest commercial airliners, the 747 and the A380, have fallen out of favour with airlines in recent years. The most recent version of the 747, the 747-8, struggled to attract customers, while Airbus came close to ending production of its flagship superjumbo recently until another large order from Emirates. Instead, airlines are opting for new, fuel-efficient planes like the Dreamliner and the A350.

Singapore Airlines was one of the first carriers to phase out 747s, in 2012.

Despite waning popularity as a passenger aircraft, the 747 remains a popular choice as a cargo plane, so it's likely to still be sighted at airports for some time to come.

See also: While others are grounded, one airline is increasing flights to Australia

See also: What the demise of the four-engine plane means for travellers

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