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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)

  • C77 says:

    OK where to start….

    You also missed off Darwin from your Australian cities served by the 747.

    “By 1976, BOAC had 18 747-136s in its fleet”
    And yet in the paragraph below you say In 1974, BOAC and British European Airways as well as two regional airlines merged to become British Airways.

    The Negus photo shown is the BA100 special paint scheme on a 747-400 not a 747-100 of the era of the formation of the new British Airways in 1974.

    You don’t mention how the Monarch lounges upstairs on the 747-100’s were retrofitted with seats and extra windows during the late 70’s for increased passenger capacity. Or the 3-4-2 Economy configuration going to 3-4-3 at around the same time. Or the creation of a dedicated Executive section in 1978 that later became known as Club, Super Club to the USA and then Club World from 1988.

    You don’t mention the 747-200’s which joined the BA fleet which were Rolls Royce powered and allowed a longer range and non-stop flying to New markets such as the US West Coast. You don’t mention the 1982 incident over Jakarta where all 4 engines failed when it flew unwittingly into a volcanic ash cloud.

    The first flat bed was rolled out in 1995 in FIRST, not in 1999. The picture you’ve chosen is the first flat bed in Business Class which was first deployed in 1999.

    I notice a lot of the facts being quoted are from the official press release which is actually full of errors. I’d have thought with HFP doing an entire article specifically relating to BA and the 747 you’d have done some more research and padded it out with more of your own stuff relevant to BA instead of copying and pasting bits and bobs from recent press releases that have been pretty poor to be fair.

    • Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells says:

      Yes outrageous! I and thousands of others will be cancelling our subscriptions first thing on Monday.

    • Gibboooo says:

      What is the matter with you?

      • Yuff says:


      • Marcw says:

        Nothing wrong with pointing out mistakes and errors.

        • C77 says:

          Exactly. If you’re going do a swan song article to conclude and summarise the service of an iconic aircraft that has served BA and its predecessor for the best part of 50 years, at least do the honourable thing and research the subject to include relevant content or just publish the press release …. Oh wait you already did that didn’t you.

          • Danny says:

            Pointing out errors and corrections are to be expected and welcomed. It’s not what you said but how you said it – most of your previous comments, including on this article came across as rude and aggressive; there is no need for it.

      • Mr(s) Entitled says:

        When something is written as a factual piece and not an opinion piece correcting inaccuracies seems entirely appropriate.

        I enjoyed the article because I learned something. I viewed the comment as an addendum and enjoyed it for the same reason.

      • JJ says:

        “C77” is BA-speak for a captain on the BA 777 fleet. Our C77 could have been on the fleet during their career and quite possibly should be forgiven for being a little bit grumpy at the moment. However I think the point has been made now…

        • C77 says:

          What an assumption. I wish I could say thar were the case, alas I’m just a tad disappointed after all the hype, that’s all. I’m not really THAT grumpy, although if that’s the perception people draw then I can live with that.

          • JJ says:

            Ok, in that case I apologise. It is a fact that C77 is BA code for a 777 captain and many of them started their careers on the 747. And I did say you were only ” a little bit grumpy” which would be entirely understandable given the turmoil at BA. ( A smiley here would be helpful!)

            I am a huge fan of the Jumbo and am sad that I won’t fly on one again, although my last experience LHR- SFO on UAL a few years ago was a disappointment. Like Concorde I guess its time is up, although I hope the 747 continues as a freighter for many years.

            HFP is not a technical publication and I come here for the points collecting advice. I enjoy the travel enthusiast items too, but accept the occasional errors (which Rob is always keen to correct) as part of the immediacy required.

    • SWWT says:

      Thanks Rob for an excellent article. 7/10 for accuracy perhaps but 11/10 for interest and enjoyment.

    • Isherwood says:

      If you are not familiar with the 1982 Jakarta incident then it is well worth a Web search. The Captain on the flight was Eric Moody and his cabin address from that flight is considered text book. Moody said:”Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

    • Rhys says:

      You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find information about BA’s 747 online 🙂 the Negus photo is because I struggled to find an image available for re-use of the original livery!

      • Mutley says:

        Good sources of info on 747 history is Seattle’s museum of flight, closer to home the BA Heritage Centre at Waterside, which I visited last year, probably closed at present😕 love the 70s soundtrack and cocktail lounge, very Roger Moore.

        • Rhys says:

          Yes, unfortunately I did not have time to head to the Heritage Centre at 3pm on Friday and do a deep dive (if it’s even open at the moment……)

    • PM says:

      Article did mention the spiral staircase, full marks.

  • Adam says:

    Does anyone know if BA plans to do a celebratory retirement flight ? Would love to fly on it one last time .

    • Marcw says:

      Unlikely in the current environment. Remember, they are selling artwork to preserve cash.

      • Mr(s) Entitled says:

        Why would it have to be loss making? A short jaunt wouldn’t use much fuel (which is cheap anyway and also due to hedging I suspect a sunk cost) and they have the staff for a few more weeks at least.

      • George K says:

        I would’ve thought that a farewell flight would be a revenue generating move, as well as a marketing one. Obviously if they’re going to lose money by doing it, I don’t expect them to do so. But I would’ve thought that a farewell flight – or flights – was a theoretical win-win situation…

        • Rhys says:

          It won’t happen. BA are trying not to court the press at the moment – they don’t want to dredge up the redundancy issues. There’s a reason why the official press release announcing the 747 retirement came 20 hours after the story was leaked to us….

  • Nick_C says:

    As C77 notes above, economy was initially 3-4-2, not 2-4-2.

    • Tariq says:

      Anyone know why? Seems an odd thing to do – why not 3-3-3?

      • C77 says:

        It allowed more couples to sit together without being split up in a 3-4-2 config. At least that was the favoured marketing line most airlines adopted of the era. An era when emphasis was placed on comfort and space to attract passengers, not how much money the airline could make or save by making all seatimg configs the same.

      • Andrew Mc says:

        At a guess there are more 2’s and 4’s travelling than 3’s.

      • Nick_C says:

        I loved the 2-5-2 layout which was the original standard for the 777. Dont understand why it wasn’t popular with pax. I had no problem with the middle seat, which only needed to be used if the plane was more than 88pc loaded. Flying with my partner in window and aisle with 34 seat pitch on American (“more room throughout coach”) was a very comfortable economy experience.

        But 2-4-3 on a 747 must have been very spacious.

  • Jon says:

    Am I the only one to be overly surprised that the upper deck was used for a cocktail lounge? Sounds a splendid idea and would love to have tried it!

    • Qrfan says:

      Buy a business ticket on an Emirates a380 and use the bar? Much the same thing really. Emirates a380 isn’t disappearing anytime soon.

    • SWWT says:

      I was v familiar with the cocktail lounge config. Not of BOAC but of QF. During university vacations I snagged a job with ANZ at Mangere as a cleaner and got to push the vacuum around all the international arrivals. Including the just-introduced 747. BOAC flew the VC-10 to AKL in those days but the QF -100s were of the same config as BOAC. The cocktail lounge was a wonder, but pretty much dead space. In those days of government ownership load factors weren’t important. Many years later ANZ were themselves using 747s but the -200 series in which the pre-extended upper deck was a small business class cabin. Can recall crossing the Tasman as the only upstairs occupant. Aside from the two rather bored FAs.

  • TimM says:

    How about a re-write and augmentation with C77’s input? You could probably get a book’s worth if you let it roll and invite other contributors.

    • Rhys says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a book written at some point…

  • Scott says:

    Enjoyed this article, although very sad about the retirement of the 747! Feel very privileged to have flown on it – an Air Canada 747 was part of my first trip out of Europe age 11, and a bit later a BA 747 took me on my first proper long haul adventure (LHR-SIN-SYD, and then after various other stopping points on other airlines LAX-LHR) and I still remember being fairly overwhelmed by the massive size of the aircraft. Have had the opportunity to fly in F a few times including 1A/K (occupying both seats on one trip with a light load, which was amazing), and then my last foreign trip before lockdown was CW LCY out and 747 64A return – my first and last journey on the BA 747 upper deck. Lots of very happy times 😊

  • Derek Scott says:

    My first 747 flight was with the wonderful WardAir, Prestwick to Calgary. In 1987, a return ticket was £408, and their inflight meal service was winning awards over the likes of Singapore and BA

  • AJA says:

    I love that Landor livery, so elegant. I remember the “ethnic” tail fins, they were awful although I think that was when the Chatham Dockyard livery also first appeared as one of the many designs. The death knell for them was that famous photo of Margaret Thatcher draping her hanky over the tail of a model aircraft, hilarious!