For 47 years, the hump-backed Boeing 747 jumbo jet has captivated skyward gazes, wowed passengers with its spacious cabin and luxurious upper deck — and changed the way the world travels.
Yet for U.S. passenger airlines, the massive plane known as The Whale no longer fits the mission and is being retired from the fleet. Delta Air Lines is operating its final 747 flights as 2017 draws to a close, marking the end of an era.
The 747 has become less suitable compared with newer large jets, due to improvements in fuel efficiency and a more global economy where travelers need to get to a greater array of international cities more frequently.
That means the decades-old model of gathering up 400 people into a jet and flying them to a hub in Tokyo doesn’t work as well. More cities around the world, particularly in China, have developed into business capitals. Today, travelers want to go directly from Seattle to Beijing, or Detroit to Seoul, or Atlanta to Shanghai.
But for travelers, pilots and others who remember the amazement they felt when they first saw the 747, first stepped into its cabin or first took the controls in the cockpit of the massive jet, the 747’s final flight into a desert graveyard is bittersweet.
Delta took the 747 on a farewell tour across the country over the past week as it landed its last commercial flight on the jet on a route from Seoul to Detroit.
Eric Goldmann, a Delta frequent flier, remembers when his love affair with the 747 began: It was the summer of 1993. He was 15 years old, and flew from West Palm Beach where he grew up to Asia with his parents. “I was big into aviation, but never really saw the 747 until then,” Goldmann said. He was awed with “just the size, and the second level — the upper deck.”
Goldmann booked a seat on one of Delta’s last commercial flights on the 747 “to be part of history — aviation history.”
Over the past week, Delta’s 747 made final appearances in Everett, Wash., where it was made, as well as at Delta hubs in Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles as part of a farewell tour.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian said at a farewell event in Atlanta that the 747 is less fuel efficient and costs more for maintenance than newer planes: Heavy maintenance checks alone for the 747 cost $10 million to $20 million, he said.
“It’s time to move to the next generation,” Bastian said.
He said when the 747 was first designed and built, “It was built to go to big hubs.” But now, instead of flying to Tokyo and having passengers connect on to other cities in Asia, Delta more often flies nonstop to burgeoning cities in China and Korea, as those nations’ economies have grown.
In fact, Delta is dismantling its hub at Tokyo Narita airport, after a change in a U.S.-Japan aviation agreement last year changed the competitive landscape for airlines flying to Japan. Delta has since cut back its flights at Tokyo Narita, and has strengthened partnerships with Korean Air and China Eastern.
Before the end of the year, Delta’s four remaining 747s will be used to operate charter flights before the aircraft is retired entirely from its fleet.
Yet they still can’t match the 747’s grandeur in the nostalgic minds of many. For pilots, having the opportunity to fly the 747 was a lifetime goal.
“It’s an iconic plane. You sit up there, almost 40 feet up in the cockpit, looking down on the world,” said 63-year-old Delta pilot Gary Donovan. “The opulence of the airplane…. It’s a blast from the past.”
“When you fly the 747, it was cachet,” said retired Delta pilot Jeff Korn, at Delta’s 747 hangar party at its TechOps maintenance facility next to Hartsfield-Jackson, said. “People go, ‘Wow…’ — even other pilots.”
Korn said although the 747 is now “financially obsolete,” it is not technically obsolete.
When the 747 debuted, “it was an absolute breakthrough in technology,” said Delta pilot Mark Spanier, who lives in Peachtree City. And even today, pilots praise the 747’s smooth ride in rough air — an advantage of its size.
Spanier remembers seeing the 747 when he was a child and deciding to become a pilot.
“I delivered newspapers as a kid, and I’d see this  flying overhead,” Spanier said. “you just look up in awe, you see this giant machine flying over. You look up and say, ‘I’m to fly that someday.’”
So when Spanier got the chance to fly the 747 as captain for four years, “It was really the highlight of my career.”
“Every pilot dreams about it,” he said. “Airline pilots who have been flying for 40 years stop and look at it when it lands.”
With the huge jet sitting next to him in the Delta hangar as its final days wane, Spanier said, “I just wanted to kiss her goodbye one more time.”
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