Wednesday, March 9, 2016

United rushing to retire 747s, a last link to a special era in the air

United Airlines Boeing 747-422 (25158/866) N179UA on a very short final to Rwy 25L at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX/KLAX) on January 25, 2012.
(Photo by Michael Carter)

Lost in the excitement of activist investors launching a bid to rearrange boardroom chairs at United Airlines was some melancholy but not unexpected news from the carrier more likely to resonate with fliers.

United said Tuesday it's accelerating retirement of Boeing 747s from its fleet. The original jumbo jet — flown commercially since 1970, beloved by pilots and endearingly recognizable to the public — will be removed from regular service by the end of 2018.

Following an industry trend among passenger airlines, United will replace the 747s with newer, more cost-efficient, easier-to-maintain jets. In doing so, it will sever one of the few remaining ties to a time when flying still plausibly might have been half the fun of going away.

Ironically, as 747s become more of a rarity for increasingly squeezed and put-upon travelers, they remain a popular option for carriers that haul freight.

Gerry Laderman, United's senior vice president of finance and acting chief financial officer, said in a statement that the new Boeing 777s and 787s on order to supplant the airline's 747s are "more customer-pleasing" and will provide "a better overall experience for our customers."

Customer experience? He's a numbers guy. It's all load factors, revenue per available seat-mile and cost per available seat-mile to him.

There's a similar movement within the hotel industry right now. Marriott and other chains are playing with stripped-down, more spartan accommodations, arguing this is what millennial customers want, rather than the cost benefits for the innkeeper.

It plays out as in-room desks and workspace being deemed superfluous, baths being replaced with small showers and carpeting being replaced with easily cleaned laminated flooring.

This may be fine for some visitors, especially if it keeps prices in check, but often comes as a jolt for the seasoned travelers who count on more.

The 747 was more, in every way.

Not for nothing, Air Force One has been a 747 of late, though even that may not last. Congressional infighting has bogged down the order of replacement jets for the current ones.

Like tales of Pan Am's famously sumptuous long-gone Clipper Class, my earliest 747 recollection set a high bar impossible to clear for the tens of thousands of air miles I would subsequently travel.

It was a 747 memory manufactured by Madison Avenue, a TV commercial, and it's especially potent.

American Airlines boasted in the early 1970s that it had replaced 60 seats on its 747 "Luxury Liners" with a coach lounge, a bar in the sky complete with an electric piano.

We're talking about an inflight party, in economy class no less. Who knows what bacchanal awaited those in first class? The scene in coach resembled something one imagined on a cruise ship or a singles bar.

A vintage TV ad for American's 747 coach lounge posted on YouTube, narrated by former NBC anchor Chet Huntley, shows a pre-Fonzie Henry Winkler offering a light to a female passenger, having mistaken the makeup compact she was opening for a cigarette case.

By the time I actually boarded my first 747, there was still smoking in the skies, but the piano and the party were long gone. The 60 seats and then some were back in place. The bookkeepers, or maybe just the reality of air travel, won out.

Yet there remained quite a bit of romance to the big old workhorse, especially on those few occasions I played the mileage game to work my way into one of the upper deck seats beneath the 747's distinctive "hump" and behind the aircraft's upstairs cockpit.

That bump was the result of positioning the cockpit high and slightly back so freight iterations of the 747 could be fitted with a cargo door on its nose that opens upward.

Some believe the 747's lead designer, Joseph Sutter, was looking to emulate the head of a bird with the bump's slope, making it both unmistakable and attractive on some natural, primal level.

Personally, I'm reminded of Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make," in which he says of the city: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

A swan's head is more majestic to consider than a broken nose, though. Either way, it was real, alluring, lovely and one of the great designs of the 20th century.

It is also now becoming an endangered species.

The 747 was this impossibly big, incredibly powerful thing that flew fast, high, smooth and gracefully despite all the forces pushing against it, and you felt special to be aboard it.

That's seen less often in the airline business these days.

(Phil Rosenthal - Chicago Tribune)

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