Japan Airlines Corp.’s only remaining Boeing 747 will take off for its final flight on Tuesday, marking the end of the carrier’s fleet of the wide-body jet that has linked key cities in Japan and abroad for roughly four decades.
JAL, which used to have one of the world’s biggest fleets of Boeing 747 jumbo jets, is retiring the popular plane earlier than planned as part of a restructuring necessitated by its bankruptcy last year.
The plane proved highly successful for U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co., with global orders topping 1,400 for the series, which was inaugurated for commercial flights in 1970.
In 1970, JAL started flying a Boeing 747-100 aircraft, the first in the series, on its Tokyo-Honolulu route. It subsequently acquired a total of 100 jumbos for passenger services and 12 for cargo. At its peak in the 1990s, the airline was employing around 80 jumbos on domestic and international routes.
Some were designed specifically for the Japanese market to carry as many passengers as possible on routes restricted by airport flight slots. JAL’s domestic version had around 550 seats.
Many crew members and fans have said they will miss the jet, once described as “the king of aircraft.”
The former national flag carrier, currently undergoing rehabilitation, offered a two-day “goodbye” tour for a Boeing 747-400 in domestic service from Feb. 19. Around 450 enthusiasts from across the country boarded the flight, chatting with pilots at a party.
Hiroyuki Hayakawa, a 49-year-old company employee from Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, who took part, said, “Aircraft meant jumbos. For Japanese, it was something that made air travel familiar.”
Capt. Hideaki Iwasaki, a 51-year-old JAL pilot, said, “It was easy to operate and strong against turbulence. It had four engines and we had this sense of security that it would be all right even if one of them broke down. I feel like a comrade is going away.”
One of the major factors behind JAL’s move to retire the plane is its bad fuel economy. JAL was gradually retiring older planes and the bankruptcy accelerated the process.
A JAL labor union member said, “One of the reasons for deteriorating business conditions was the excessive introduction of jumbo jets under pressure from the United States.”
Capt. Kei Sawaki, 43, who joined the tour, said he spent a majority of his career as a pilot on jumbos. “I will miss it. It’s a plane that helped me grow into a pilot. I understand in my head that it has to be retired given the company’s circumstances, but my heart asks why it has to be taken away from me.”
After its 747-100 to 400 series, Boeing is currently developing the 747-8, its latest version. JAL has no plans at the moment to obtain the new jet.
Capt. Sawaki said, “I’m hoping to command a jumbo again someday. Pledging to do so, I would like to keep myself going until that day comes.”
Japanese rival All Nippon Airways Co. is planning to retire its Boeing 747 fleet by 2015.
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