LONDON: In this file photograph, a British Airways Boeing 747 passenger aircraft prepares to land at London Heathrow Airport, west of London. UK flag carrier British Airways is retiring its entire Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” fleet, it said Friday, following the huge hit to international air travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. — AFP

LONDON: British Airways on Friday retired its Boeing 747 jumbo jets, hastening the withdrawal of the ageing plane after the coronavirus pandemic crushed demand for air travel and carriers began switching to greener jets. BA parent group IAG, which was already phasing out the iconic aircraft by 2024, said in a statement that the entire fleet had been retired “with immediate effect” owing to “the downturn in travel caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic”.

The airline will operate more flights on modern fuel-efficient aircraft such as Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s, as it seeks to both slash costs and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The carrier has 31 Boeing jumbos, more than any other airline, while the dwindling number of airlines continuing to fly the 747 include Air India, Korean Air and Lufthansa. In Australia meanwhile, Qantas on Friday carried out a farewell flight for its last remaining 747.

‘Heart-breaking decision’

“This is not how we wanted or expected to have to say goodbye to our incredible fleet of 747 aircraft. It is a heart-breaking decision to have to make,” said BA Chief Executive Alex Cruz. “We have committed to making our fleet more environmentally friendly as we look to reduce the size of our business to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation. As painful as it is, this is the most logical thing for us to propose.”

US aerospace titan Boeing launched the 747 in 1970, with the 400-seater jet dominating international air travel and cargo over the following decades.  “It’s the end of an era for the queen of the skies,” independent aviation analyst John Strickland told AFP on Friday.

Production of the A380 superjumbo ceases next year-a decision taken by European planemaker Airbus before the pandemic struck. “The virus certainly expedited” BA’s retirement of the 747, Strickland said, noting that the airline had already decommissioned almost half of its fleet that once stood at 57 aircraft. But COVID-19 hastened BA’s latest move, with the virus battering the air transport sector and decimating demand, sparking bailouts and tens of thousands of job cuts at airlines. COVID-19 has killed nearly 600,000 people, according to an AFP tally.  The United States is the worst-hit country with 138,360 deaths. “The global air market is… in tatters, not least the US market,”  Strickland said. British Airways is shedding 12,000 staff, while Boeing has confirmed 16,000 layoffs.

American Airlines has announced 45,000 job losses and Lufthansa-which received a nine-billion-euro state bailout-has removed 22,000 posts.

‘Key to adapting’

The pandemic is pushing the aviation sector to more quickly embrace modern fuel-efficient aircraft which help carriers save precious cash and survive, according to London-based aviation analyst Alex Macheras. “Airlines concluded just weeks into the pandemic that larger and inefficient aircraft would hinder any efforts to break even,” Macheras said.

He said older aircraft had “too many empty seats to fill and too much fuel required, or in some cases like the 747 — both”.  Macheras added: “Newer, lighter, smaller, and more economically and environmentally efficient aircraft such as the Airbus A350 are key to airlines adapting to fit the ‘new normal’-and we are seeing these replacement decisions taking place at airlines around the world.” — AFP