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The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

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Yesterday we published a brief history of the Boeing 747.  Today, we want to focus on how the Boeing 747 helped shape the story of British Airways.

British Airways did not exist in its current incarnation when the Boeing 747 was launched in 1970.  Its predecessor, the British Overseas Airways Corporation – or BOAC – introduced its first 747 in 1971, initially flying the type to New York.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

Somewhat ironically, a pay dispute with pilots meant that the jumbo was grounded for BOAC for a year, as this video shows. Some things never change!  This two minute video is a news report on the inaugural flight to New York.

If you are reading this by email and cannot see the video, visit this page of YouTube.

British Airways Boeing 747 history

Although BOAC also flew the 747 to Johannesburg and Tokyo amongst other routes, it really made its mark on the ‘Kangaroo Route’ to Australia.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

By 1975, BOAC was operating to five Australian cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Despite the 747’s excellent range (at the time), the route still required multiple stops.  Perth was the shortest, requiring just two stops whilst Sydney and Melbourne required at least three.

This video was produced on the inaugural flight in 1971:

If you are reading this by email and cannot see the video, visit this page of YouTube.

As you can see, BOAC initially used the additional space afforded by the upper deck as a cocktail lounge for first class passengers and called it the ‘Monarch Lounge’ (click to enlarge):

Access was via a spiral staircase:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

It wasn’t that big, however, as the upper deck on early variants was surprisingly small.  If anything it looks slightly claustrophobic!

It got a lot bigger by the time the current British Airways 747-400 was introduced, and the 747-8i (currently only flown by Lufthansa in Europe) is even bigger.  Here are some screenshots from the British Pathe video:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

First class was a 2-2 arrangement in the nose of the aircraft:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In economy, passengers were sat in a 3-4-2 arrangement rather than the more common 3-4-3 in later years:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

By 1976, BOAC had 18 747-136s in its fleet and would later order some 747-236 variants which would continue to be flown by British Airways until the 1990s. These aircraft featured 27 First Class seats and 292 in economy.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 1974, BOAC and British European Airways as well as two regional airlines merged to become British Airways.  Between 1974 and 1984, British Airways aircraft were painted in the ‘Negus’ livery:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 1984, aircraft were repainted in the ‘Landor’ Livery:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways
In 1986, British Airways placed a large order for the next-generation 747 variant, the 747-400. The first of this type was introduced in July 1989 and the last arrived in April 1999.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 1990, a British Airways 747 was involved in a high-profile incident in Kuwait. The BA149 flight arrived into Kuwait City from Heathrow on its way to Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, Iraq had launched a full-scale invasion of Kuwait and had by that time already taken control of Kuwait International Airport. On arrival, all passengers and crew were captured by Iraqi forces and detained at nearby hotels. The aircraft was eventually destroyed on site.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 1997, British Airways had a bit of a mid-life crisis and decided to change its livery to ‘World Images’.  This introduced 50 different tail fin designs based on “ethnic” art from around the world.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 1999, British Airways introduced the first fully-flat bed seat on its 747s.  This was a revolutionary product, from the time when British Airways was genuinely the leading global carrier:

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

In 2001 it introduced the Chatham Dockyards livery across the entire fleet, which is still in use today.

The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

At its peak, the British Airways Boeing 747-400 fleet reached 57 aircraft.  Since the last delivery in 1999, British Airways has been slowly retiring the type from service.  Other airlines moved faster, however, and BA has in recent years been the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 747.

This week, it announced that it would retire the entire fleet four years early as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Comments (67)

  • Michael says:

    BA also had 3 ‘Combi’ 747s which were a combined freight and passenger plane ie the rear zone on the main deck was cargo. These flew most often on the London to Moscow to Tokyo to Anchorage to London route. The upper deck was usually club with the galley behind the flight deck.
    All 3 747 Combi’s had different cabin layouts and one had a faulty fire alarm warning light in the hold so when it went off an automatic extinguisher was used to put out the supposed fire in the hold but you cannot fly without an extinguisher so you have to have an emergency evacuation at the closet airfield…Gander in Newfoundland was a frequented by one of the Combi’s.

    The newest 747 200 was younger than the oldest 747 400 by several months

    • David Bayliss says:

      I think Michael is mistaken about the number of Combis that BA had. I believe there were two, both sub-leased from Aer Lingus via TMA. They were registered as G-??PO and PV. Obviously with the Irish connection they were nicknamed Paddy Oscar and Paddy Victor. As I remember PO had a normal cabin layout and PV was a combi with side loading door. On one occasion a service to Detroit was delayed because of a firewire fault on the loading door. So that the service could get away, a colleague and myself flew with the aircraft and taking taking turns we sat by door 5 left acting as human smoke detectors! On arrival in Detroit we fixed the snag and then flew back to LHR! A very long day considering we had just finished an early shift. There is more to this tale but not for publication.

      • Michael says:

        Hi David….no there were at one point 3 747 Combi’s in the 1980s, I flew on them. Most diffinately 3 different layouts.

        • David Bayliss says:

          Just to correct my previous post. I made a mistake in saying the original lessor was TMA but I believe it was in fact MEA Middle Eastern Airlines.

      • Bob Morris says:

        Someone’s and overlooking the combi 747 inherited from BCAL I was to fly on it once from LGW TO HKG, only the couldn’t get the freight door on the passenger deck closed. After a good 4 or so hours ( when we even had a meal served). We were taken to hotels and flew on other aircraft the next day. I was put on a Cathay aircraft. I had heard that the ex BCAL often did this trick.

  • Robin Tyson says:

    Flew from LHR to Johannesburg December 1970. My young brother got ‘lost’ on that huge plane! Last flight was New York to London last May. But, to be honest, compared to more modern planes it had lost its shine. Loud, with a miserable in-flight entertainment. Still, compared to the ‘stethoscope’ and ‘projected movies’ in 1970 it was certainly a step up!

  • Christopher Nelsen says:

    The majority of the fleet is parked up on the tarmac at Cardiff Wales Airport I have a few photos of them all lined up, it’s pretty sad looking at them all collecting dust!

  • Bob Morris says:

    Took my wife to be inside the first 3 747 136’s they were all delivered without seats and one could see from end to end – massive at the time. Then economy was increased from 9 abreast to 10 abreast and at one time BA even put two rows of seats by the emergency exit doors over the wing, those blocking the exit. That didn’t last long though.
    The 747 has been a terric workhorse for BA ( and BOAC) and will be sadly missed

    • C77 says:

      BA even went as far as to block up the over wing exits all together in later years (doors 3L/3R) on the 747-100’s and 200’s. The overwing slides on the early series 100/200’s were somewhat unreliable, cumbersome and not to mention very heavy. They were formed in 2 parts – an initial deployment from the door onto the wing and another slide section housed in the wing itself that deployed down the back of the wing to the ground. BA received dispensation from the CAA in order to do so and were able to demonstrate in evacuation tests that the configurations being operated (nowhere near the maximum 500 passengers that the 747 was actually certified for) that they could safely evacuate with 8 main deck doors. This allowed additional rows of seats to be fitted where the overwing exits originally were (still there but sealed up inside and out) and created an additional weight (an subsequent fuel) saving. By the time the 400’s arrived in the fleet, the CAA weren’t obliged to offer a similar arrangement due to further legislation which governed the maximum distance between exits on new aircraft. Also by this time the 400’s were fitted with a far more reliable slide system which was a one-piece slide housed entirely within the door which that was far lighter and created less of a cost saving argument. Cathay Pacific and I think Qantas also adopted similar retrofits.

      In the early/mid 90’s BA operated a sub-fleet of 747-200’s out of Gatwick in a 2 class configuration (small Club World/ large World Traveller) to serve primarily leisure destinations in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. This seating arrangement exceeded the maximum seating permitted for 8 main deck exits operation. These sub-fleet subsequently had their overwing exits reactivated and put back into service with 10 exits on the main deck. They had new style 747-400 one-piece slides fitted at the overwing exits.

  • Bob Morris says:

    TWA were still using the stroboscope years later even in first. And legs rests you had to pull out beforehand.
    Now TWA doesn’t need a stethoscope, they need a defibulrator!

  • Alex Sm says:

    why is BA version only has 3 windows on the upper deck while the Qantas one had at least a dozen (see in the second video)?

    • C77 says:

      Qantas took 747-200’s which had 10-12 windows upstairs as per their specification. BOAC originally took 747-100’s with 3 windows. Later on under British Airways they took 747-200’s with seats upstairs (no lounge). They then retrofitted the earlier 100’s with additional seating upstairs having ripped out the cocktail lounge and added in extra windows.

  • Alex Sm says:

    also just wondering who wrote and proofed the copy on this page: https://www.britishairways.com/100/story/heritage-liveries

    “English naval commander Lord Nelson who’s (sic!) fleet was based at the historic Chatham Royal Dockyard”

  • cinereus says:

    Amazing how wide the aisles used to be.