Even before coronavirus almost destroyed the global airline business, the days of mega-planes were numbered.
Even though, as a plane-crazy kid I had followed the progress of the world’s biggest airliner, Boeing’s 747 “Jumbo”, I was still gobsmacked at the sight of the orange tail of the South African Airways jet, towering above the three-story airport terminal building.
My three mates and I had cycled to the airport in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) to witness the arrival of the massive plane. Most of the planes landing there in those days were propeller-driven, so this was a double treat for us.
We could sense, then, that this plane would change the world. It was the single piece of technology which opened up long-distance, and global, travel to the masses and turbocharged the tourism business.
Moving large numbers of people in single aircraft enabled economies of scale, which enabled airfares to come down to unheard of low levels. Our first overseas trip as a married couple was in a 747 and it cost the equivalent (in economy class) of about R60,000 each in today’s money.
The Boeing airliner could carry more than 500 economy class passengers in a single-class configuration and not a lot less than that when business and first class was available.
First class was the glamour way to fly in the 1970s, as the top deck of the jumbo was often reserved for those passengers. Some airlines put in cocktail bars and casual lounges with the sort of space which makes even the wealthiest traveller today slightly envious.
Some of my most interesting aviation experiences have been in Jumbos. Such as the worst landing I’ve had in a passenger jet, when our SAA Boeing 747SP (a shortened length, longer range version) crashed into the tarmac at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport, from a height of about 15 metres, and then bounced back up into the air again.
The “coffie moffie” stewards strapped in the back of the plane screamed in terror, something of a comfort to those of us they had been abusing for most of the flight, refusing to serve us coffee…
With Virgin Atlantic’s 747s, I got to experience the Upper Class business class offering, Premium Economy and Economy on various occasions. And I was left singularly unimpressed with what Richard Branson’s airline defines as “service”.
I’ve also flown on British Airways and Lufthansa 747s and the passenger experience was not in keeping with the outside appearance of the plane dubbed “The Queen of the Skies”… but then in any trans-continental aircraft these days, you are just cattle in a pen.
The age of mega-planes seemed destined to continued forever, with the arrival of the Airbus A380 in the mid-1990s – but even before coronavirus almost destroyed the global airline business, their days were numbered. Boeing 747s and A380s are piling up in “boneyards” across the world, waiting to be cut up for scrap.
British Airways, the world’s large major operator of the type, said recently they would be retired from service, as did Virgin.
But it was left to the Australian national carrier, Qantas, to give the old girl the farewell she deserved this week as the airline’s last 747 left Sydney headed for a boneyard in Arizona.
While scores videoed the plane’s last Aussie “wheels up” as it left, and thousands watched on the internet, the jet scribed a specific flight path off the Australian coast.
When its track became clear on sites like Flight Radar, you could clearly see the Kangaroo emblem of the airline inscribed on the map.
It’s the end of an era, one where style and technology came together in a way that had a global influence.
And I doubt very much that eager schoolboys will climb on their bikes to see any future passenger hauler touch down…
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