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The story of the Boeing 747 at British Airways

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This article looks at how the Boeing 747 helped shape the story of British Airways.

This article was first published in mid 2020 when British Airways announced the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet.

As it’s a good read, we thought it worth giving it another outing today on a quiet Bank Holiday.  It has been updated with news on where the remaining aircraft have ended up.

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):

British Airways Monarch Lounge

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:

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 had been slowly retiring the type from service.  Other airlines moved faster, however, and BA was – as covid broke out – the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 747.

In June 2020, British Airways announced that it would retire the entire fleet four years early as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The British Airways 747 fleet is not totally gone for good

You still have a chance to see a Boeing 747 in British Airways colours.

G-BNLY, which is currently painted in the Landor livery, has gone to Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey.  G-CIVW, which has the current Chatham Dockyard livery, was also given to Dunsfold.

British Airways BOAC livery Boeing 747

A third aircraft, G-CIVB, has found a home at Cotswold Airport in Gloucestershire.

Sadly, the fourth saved aircraft is in the process of being scrapped.

G-BYGC was donated to the Bro Tathan business park in the Vale of Glamorgan where the plan was to maintain it as a heritage piece by aviation scrap specialists ecube. This aircraft was painted in the BOAC ‘Gold Speedbird’ livery used between 1963 and 1974, pictured above.

British Airways said at the time that:

it will be maintained as a heritage piece by aviation specialists eCube Solutions [now ecube] to showcase the pre-eminent contribution British Airways’ 747 fleet made to UK aviation.

ecube recently announced that they didn’t have the funds to maintain the aircraft.  Handily, as scrappage specialists, they were well placed to break it up and sell the spare parts ….


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Comments (56)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • mkcol says:

    This reminds me I’ve often wondered why economy was 3-4-2 instead of 3-3-3 in the early configurations.

    Just be grateful the floor beams couldn’t cope with 3-5-3 😄

    • Retron says:

      3-4-2 is arguably better than 3-3-3 for the reason that it provides more options: a couple can snag the double seats, a family of three could grab the 3 seats, a larger family of four could go for the row of 4.

      In the more modern setup, the couple would have a random person next to them, and the group of four would have to split across two chunks of seats.

      • @mkcol says:

        Indeed 3-4-2 offers more options. I guess that’s a decision which is buried in the mists of time.

  • ChasP says:

    Rose tinted comments indeed
    I flew ORD-LHR just prior to COVID ‘down the back’ of the noisiest, grubby plane I’ve ever flown. Seat didnt recline more than 5 deg. IFE kept crashing Staff were just going through the motions.
    The flight out had been OK but that return typified the BA lottery – when it was(is) good then fine but the worst was(is) dreadful

  • Bob Morris says:

    I worked for BOAC from 64 and then British Airways until 2003 and we’ll remember the first 3 747 100 ‘s being delivered (without any seats) they were massive compared with the 707 and VC,10. I also recall there was an upgrade program which saw extra windows going into the upperdeck and then it being used as passenger seating rather than lounge. There was also a time when BA were closing off the overwing exit so that the could squeeze a few days cyra seats in. Sensibly that didn’t last long. They weren’t theonly carrier doing it. I have flown on the 100, 200 and 400 plus of course the A380 and would say give me a 747 every time. Also been lucky enough to fly supersonically on Concorde 5 times.

  • KEVIN says:

    Seems really convenient that ecube no longer have the money to maintain the 4th one… but will obviously make a mint scrapping it..very handy…

  • Will says:

    I flew to Oz vis BKK on a 747 for my gap year. That was when BKK was Don Muang and all the flights were code shared with Qantas and BA still had strong showing in Oz via both BKK and SIN. They were the good old days – these days its only 1 daily flight to Sydney via SIN and they don’t even fly to BKK anymore 😔

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