Air France has now officially turned the final page on its 45 years old history operating the Boeing 747.
The farewell festivities began January 11th 2016 as the last commercial revenue flight arriving in Paris from Mexico was operated by one of the fleet’s 3 surviving 747-400. Upon its arrival at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport, flight 439 received celebratory water canon treatment by airports firefighting vehicles.
Remaining events saw two special 747-400 flights carrying the highly symbolic designation of Air France Flights 747 and 744 depart Paris CDG at 9am and 11:30am respectively on January 14th using (the 3 last remaining 747-400 are two 1992-vintage aircraft registered as F-GITD and F-GITE along with F-GITJ built more recently in 2004). On board a privileged group of Air France-selected passengers together with a mix of lucky buyers of the Euro 220 tickets were treated to Business class hallmark champagne and delicacies. The aircraft embarked on a low altitude honor tour across France’s Landmarks including the Mount Blanc, the Mount Saint Michel, the cities of Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux also bringing a final opportunity to “showing off” the Queens of The Sky to the public at large. Of more than 30 000 peoples that had intended to take part in those flights, only a few privileged 700 or so people took part.
Subsequently the aircraft were put on display to the visiting public at Le Bourget airport on January 16 and 17. There Air France stewards, pilots and mechanics associated to the 747 operation conducted guided visits for visitors.
History of the Jumbo Jet in Air France service
With customer code 28 being assigned by Boeing to Air France, the french national carrier operated as many as 73 Boeing 747 from 1970 to 2016. The carrier purchased 18 Boeing 747-128, 29 Boeing 747-228, and 24 Boeing 747-428, respectively designating 747-100, 747-200, and 747-400. We note that 2 Boeing 747-300 were also absorbed from the UTA fleet following its merger with Air France in December 1992.
The french national carrier first acquired the type in 1970 with F-BPVA being the first 747-100 (or -128 to use Boeing customer code) delivered on 20 March 1970, paving the way for deliveries of another 17 -100 airframes. The first revenue flight took place June 3rd 1970 on the Paris – New York route.
By 1974, the fleet began incorporating the 747-200 with F-BPVO arriving in October 1974, followed by 28 other aircraft including numerous combi and freighter variants.
The 1991 acquisition by Air France of UTA brought two 747-300 F-GETA and F-GETB accompanied by another 2 Boeing 747-400 (747-4B3) registered F-GEXA and F-GEXB. These arrived in the mix of Air France own sizeable orders with manufacturer Boeing for 747-428 that began arriving from February 1991 with F-GITA being the first 747-400. The 747-400 fleet would eventually peak at 24 aircraft with the most recent 747-400ERF freighters being delivered from 2002 (F-GUIA) to 2007. Surprisingly the 6 newer longer range dedicated freighter Boeing 747-400ERF (747-428ERF) did not stay in the fleet long, being all returned to lessors before reaching the 10 years mark with the carrier.
In fact by the mid-2000s the airline was already in 777 mode, looking to replace the 747 freighters with 777F, just as it had began doing in its passenger fleet way back in 2005. Here hard economics alone campaigned decisively for the end of the 747 service. Typically as an online article of Lepoint newspapers points out the 432-seat 747-400 as operated by Air France on the Paris – New York route required 102 tonnes of fuel. This figure contrasted unfavorably with the 107 tonnes carried by the 540 seats A380, and the mere 68 tonnes needed by the 381 seats 777-300ER (along with its 20 tonnes of paying freight). This alone can explain Air France voracious appetite for the 777.
The 747 replaced by another Boeing product
In Air France service the 777-300ER (-328ER should we say) fulfills a growing number of roles; there are now 5 different cabin configurations of the aircraft seating respectively 296, 303, 322, 381 and 468 passengers making possible a very flexible combination of passengers product ranging from First, Business, Premium Coach and Coach. Along with flexibility and versatility, twin engine fuel efficiency has propelled the 777-300ER popularity to an all time high illustrated this past November 2015 when Air France took delivery of its 40th ship. This is in addition to another 25 shorter fuselage 777-200ER passenger version plus another two -200LRF freighters. The aircraft has shown its endurance and adaptability with the 468 seat “Indian Ocean / Caribbean” cabin configuration proving able to replace the Air France high density 472-seats Boeing 747-400s that had long operated a route, once thought to be the sole realm of the 747 brand.
For Air France the long haul fleet has stabilized around the 40 777-300ER and the 10 Airbus A380. In comparison, Deutsch affiliate carrier KLM fleet has elected to retain its 24 Boeing 747-400 in service. British Airways is another operator that shows no sign of replacing its proudly owned 747-400, still operating 41 of the 57 aircraft it has acquired, albeit with revamped cabin product. In all with a barrel of oil priced bellow $30, carriers are seeing their fuel bill slashed by 3 quarters of what it was one year ago. This augurs well with the cyclical aviation industry well honored time period where positive cashflow and earnings must be accumulated in order to prepare the financing for the next cycle of aircraft purchases. In fact there hasn’t been a more favorable time to operate efficiently four-engined Boeing 747 in a long while. British Airways and KLM retaining the 747-400 seems to conform to that approach. For Air France, so long the 747s.