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Are the days of the Boeing 747 — the jumbo jet — over in Denver?

British Airways’ announcement that it is retiring the four-engined, humpbacked airplane means Lufthansa is the only airline flying to the Mile High City that uses the 747. But even they are unsure about the big plane’s future.

A British Airways Boeing 747 lands at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Denver International Airport)
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And then there was one. Maybe.

British Airways’ announcement last week that it is retiring its fleet of iconic Boeing 747 jets means Lufthansa is the only passenger airline using the jumbo jet to fly in and out of Denver. And even Lufthansa is unsure about the plane’s future use on its routes. 

British Airways flew a 747-400 each day from Denver International Airport to London’s Heathrow for about five years until international flights out of the Mile High City ceased when the coronavirus crisis began.

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The plane was supposed to serve British Airways for several more years, but the pandemic dealt a body blow to the airline industry and forced the plane into an early retirement.

Airport officials believe a Boeing 777 will handle the Denver-Heathrow route once service resumes. 

Some may say the 747 is just another airplane, but it’s probably the world’s most recognizable aircraft. Its first commercial flight was in 1970, and it has been a workhorse of international travel ever since, going through several different remodels. But now the plane is obsolete compared to its two-engined cousins, which are cheaper to operate and easier to fill with passengers.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate the jumbo’s impact on global aviation and in Denver, a city with deep ties to the aviation industry, it has wowed pilots and the public for generations. When the 747 no longer graces Denver’s skies, it will be the end of an era.

Lufthansa has for many years used a 747-400 to fly between Denver and Frankfurt, but that service, too, has been paused because of the pandemic. The airline didn’t provide a tentative date to resume the route.

“A decision on resuming flights from Frankfurt has not been taken yet,” said Tal Muscal, a spokesman for Lufthansa. 

Even when the Denver-Frankfurt flight resumes, however, it’s not clear that a 747-400 will be used on it.

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Denver International Airport)

“According to current forecasts of future demand, the 747-400 will not be used again in the medium term,” Muscal said. What the medium-term means remains unknown. 

It’s possible that Lufthansa could use one of its 747-8s on the Denver route — the airline has 19 of the newer, more fuel-efficient 747 model in its fleet — but those planes have traditionally been used on flights with greater demand. That airplane flies, for instance, to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and Newark from Germany.

“We will only cover the increasing demand with the more modern, more fuel-efficient Boeing 747-8s,” Muscal said. “No decision has been made, however, regarding the long-term use of the 747-400.”

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Denver International Airport)

The 747 hasn’t been used by a U.S. passenger airline for several years. United Airlines, Denver’s largest airline, retired the plane in 2017 after a cross-country goodbye tour that included a stop in the Mile High City. 

Passenger airlines have been rapidly phasing out four-engine aircraft like the Boeing 747, the Airbus A380 superjumbo and the Airbus A340 in favor of more fuel-efficient two-engine planes like the Boeing 777, Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. The replacements can carry almost as many passengers at a dramatically reduced cost.

An Airbus A350-900 at Denver International Airport on July 19, 2019, which was forecast to be the hub’s busiest day ever. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The 747 is still popular with freight carriers, but so far a freight version of the plane hasn’t been a regular visitor to Denver. You’re more likely to see a three-engine MD-11 or DC-10 belonging to FedEx.

Lufthansa says it will resume service between Denver and Munich in September. The airline has used an Airbus A350 on the route and ruled out using a 747 to replace it. 

It’s not clear when British Airways will resume its flight between Denver and Heathrow, though DIA believes it could happen in September as well.  

While some international service has resumed from Denver International Airport, there are no routes currently operating to Europe because of the coronavirus crisis.


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