Celebrating the United 747 Retirement


Our Queen, awaitng departure from SFO
Our Queen, awaitng departure from SFO

After nearly 50 years United Airlines is no longer an operator of the 747. That long relationship came to a close this week as the carrier operated its final 747-400 passenger service in grand fashion, with a nod to history. The final flight operated from San Francisco to Honolulu, just like the first 747 the company operated in 1970. The special flight – a one off just for this celebration – brought the 1970s back to the sky, with retro-themed meals, fashion and more. I was one of several guests invited by United to join the festivities. Here’s my version of the adventure, mostly in photos.

On the Ground

The celebration took over an adjacent gate area with displays of the 747s history, encouraging passengers to relive the “glory days” of air travel. Or at least relive the 1970s. Polyester and wide collars were the name of the game for many of the passengers and crew assembled to celebrate United’s 747 retirement.

Period costumes were a major part of the celebrations for the UA747 reitrement flight
Period costumes were a major part of the celebrations for the UA747 reitrement flight
Signing a jumbo-sized retirement card for the UA747.
Signing a jumbo-sized retirement card for the UA747.
The UA747 celebratory flight included a group of flight attendants in 70s era uniforms, with hair and makup special for the day.
The UA747 celebratory flight included a group of flight attendants in 70s era uniforms, with hair and makup special for the day.
The UA747 celebratory flight included a group of flight attendants in 70s era uniforms, with hair and makup special for the day.
The UA747 celebratory flight included a group of flight attendants in 70s era uniforms, with hair and makup special for the day.
A recreation of the 70s era 747 upper deck lounge, used as a photo backdrop in the gate area prior to the UA747 festivities.
A recreation of the 70s era 747 upper deck lounge, used as a photo backdrop in the gate area prior to the UA747 festivities.
Mixing the Pan Am and legacy United uniforms
Mixing the Pan Am and legacy United uniforms
Full Pan Am uniform on display, both soaking in the history of the 747 and part of it.
Full Pan Am uniform on display, both soaking in the history of the 747 and part of it.
Captain David Smith happened upon our group geeking out in the terminal a few hours before the flight. Turns out he was our pilot, too!
Captain David Smith happened upon our group geeking out in the terminal a few hours before the flight. Turns out he was our pilot, too!
The retro-crew posed for photos with pretty much everyone, including as a group themselves
The retro-crew posed for photos with pretty much everyone, including as a group themselves
United CEO Oscar Munoz addressing the crowd as part of the UA747 retirement ceremony at SFO
United CEO Oscar Munoz addressing the crowd as part of the UA747 retirement ceremony at SFO

After a few hours of posing for photos and speeches by local dignitaries boarding finally commenced, with CEO Oscar Munoz handling the first few passengers to pass through the gate.

United CEO Oscar Munoz welcomes the first passengers to board the UA747 retirement flight
United CEO Oscar Munoz welcomes the first passengers to board the UA747 retirement flight

He didn’t last long at the boarding door, however, choosing to move inside the plane and join in the pre-flight celebrations that continued on board.

Munoz walked the cabins prior to departure, with many toasts offered!
Munoz walked the cabins prior to departure, with many toasts offered!

We pushed back early – though also with scores of empty seats on board, something that hasn’t been clearly explained yet – and taxied to runway 28R for our departure. Alas, it was not going to be a smooth shift into retirement for this Queen. An indicator on one of the air conditioning packs lit up, leaving us on the side of the runway for a mechanical delay. Call it an homage to the long service of these planes and also the challenges (and costs) of keeping them in top shape to fly. Ultimately the issue was cleared (we narrowly avoided a bonus trip to the maintenance hangar) and the flight departed SFO for a ride into history.



In the Air

The festive atmosphere was on board infectious; everyone was smiling from start to finish.

Flight attendants were decked out for the fun on the UA747 flight
Flight attendants were decked out for the fun on the UA747 flight

Our departure track took us on a decidedly non-standard routing, with a low pass over the Golden Gate Bridge. That was all sorts of spectacular.

From there we turned westward, towards the islands, recreating the very first route the 747 flew for United.

Custom coasters, plus more Mai Tais. THough we did run out eventually.
Custom coasters, plus more Mai Tais. THough we did run out eventually.

Getting everyone to settle down and buckle in was about as effective as expected. Which is to say that herding cats is probably easier. A champagne toast was offered on board.

Champagne toast for everyone on board once we were airborne
Champagne toast for everyone on board once we were airborne

And then the crew served up a special meal designed by United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli, with a nod to the Trader Vic’s victuals of yore.

Special menus on board, with a nod to Trader Vic's. And lots of Mai Tais, too.
Special menus on board, with a nod to Trader Vic’s. And lots of Mai Tais, too.
Appetizer of coconut shrimp and a wonton dumpling
Appetizer of coconut shrimp and a wonton dumpling
The salad/appetizer course for lunch
The salad/appetizer course for lunch
I chose the Mahi Mahi main course; the beef also looked delicious
I chose the Mahi Mahi main course; the beef also looked delicious
The dry ice trick is always a winner when the ice cream sundae cart rolls through.
The dry ice trick is always a winner when the ice cream sundae cart rolls through.
Hanging out with United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli, the man behind the speical menu selections UA's 747 retirement flight
Hanging out with United Executive Chef Gerry Gulli, the man behind the speical menu selections UA’s 747 retirement flight


A Final Goodbye

The gate celebration in Honolulu was also significant. Everyone received a lei, including the 747 herself. More speeches were made, celebrating history and looking to the future. And then the time came for onward connections to be made or hotels (and beach time) to be found.

Our plane got lei'd upon arrival, as well she should
Our plane got lei’d upon arrival, as well she should

Me? I was on the last flight out back to San Francisco that same night. This left me all alone in the gate area as the 747 pushed back one last time. She was towed to the hangar across the field for an employee celebration that night. With the lei still draped across the distinctive nose. It was a sight to behold.

She’ll fly back to San Francisco and then to Victorville to be stored in the desert until being cannibalized for parts or scrapped to make beer cans. Aloha and Mahalo!

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.


Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

18 Comments

    1. I’m really of two minds on this. Yes, I am sad the iconic airframe is on the way out. That bump up front is something special.

      At the same time, more point-to-point flying and newer technologies make for a better passenger experience. The newer planes are quieter, more efficient and less expensive to operate.

      There is no doubt that the 747 revolutionized the air travel industry. But it is time for the next generation of revolutions to occur. I truly believe this is a good end of an era, other than that iconic silhouette.

    2. What do think the next revolution will bring?

      With the amount of spend involved, I see the current plane manufacturers being very cautious with design and end up designing appliances that fly.

      And with the high cost of entry, I don’t see any disruptors on the horizon.

    3. Indeed, new entrants are incredibly rare. Especially for larger aircraft types. Just look at the troubles Bombardier – relatively well established – is having with its larger type. To say nothing of the mess greeting Mitsubishi as it tries to break in to the 70-100 seat market. COMAC is going to be slightly more successful thanks to the home country access/mandate that will eventually come.

      That said, current designs are mostly very cautious. I’m mostly okay with that. New engines and lighter air frames may not be as sexy but they significantly alter the economics of air travel. And those economic shifts are what the revolutions are built on. Building an operating structure where more people can travel more is major shift.

      Plus, there are some dreamers, like Boom Aero (http://blog.wandr.me/2017/06/boom-supersonic/), though I think their vision of the commercial market is flawed.

  1. Saturday morning there was a DL 747 at DFW, chartered by the military. I was hanging around the boarding area in the next gate, delaying my boarding and chatting with the gate agents, one agent invited me into an office with a full view of the plane, the employees were all in heaven in that office since a DL 747 is very unique there. It’s a beautiful plane, great pictures that morning!

  2. Great write up! Looks like it was a ton of fun.

    Thanks for calling out the empty seats… I couldn’t make the trip myself, but seeing pictures of all these empty seats when I know so many people who would have loved to attend was disturbing. I was also expecting business class to be sold out; apparently there were a bunch of upgrades in the end. (Congrats to the lucky recipients!)

  3. Looks like it was a great farewell party. Sorry I missed it. Any idea on why there were so many open seats? I kept checking every so often to purchase a ticket but one was never available when I searched.

Comments are closed.

BoardingArea